Opinion: Magna Carta: Civil liberties 800 years on, under a Tory majority government

On Monday, the Magna Carta – the oldest charter in British (and indeed European) history which protects civil liberties – celebrated its 800th anniversary.

At a celebration in Runnymede, where the Magna Carta was sealed by King John in 1215, David Cameron pledged “to safeguard the legacy, the idea [and] the momentous achievements of those barons” who first signed the Great Charter.

That’s quite a bold statement to make, especially considering he’s in the middle of damaging – not safeguarding – such a legacy by repealing the Human Rights Act 1998 (hereon the HRA).

Like the Magna Carta protected civil liberties in the face of the monarchy, so the HRA protects civil liberties in the face of our government. Consequentially, as Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder and Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld suggest in their article in The New Statesman, it’s hypocritical that the Tories should glorify the Magna Carta whilst scolding the HRA.

In Britain, we pride ourselves on our history of promoting civil liberties at home and abroad. We pride ourselves on having been the first ever European country to have set out a charter to protect civil liberties, and we pride ourselves on having been the first ever European country to have abolished slavery on our seas.

But now, we also risk becoming the first European country to repeal the authority of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

We risk joining Belarus, which is “hardly a bastion of liberal democracy”, as Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake puts it, as the only other European country not to sign up to the international court.

We simply cannot allow ourselves to scrap the HRA. It has helped countless crime victims and their families to secure freedom and justice, from protecting LGBT rights and securing fresh inquests into unresolved murder cases to ensuring couples aren’t separated against their wishes by local councils.

Besides, this is the country that wiped totalitarian nationalism off the face of the European continent: we should know ourselves that we can never entrust the protection of fundamental civil liberties to national bodies.

That’s why Winston Churchill promoted the founding of the Council of Europe: to establish a supreme, supranational body to protect civil liberties against national bodies in Europe forevermore after an inhuman half-century of conflict and oppression.

To scrap the ECtHR’s authority over the UK Supreme Court would therefore be a grave insult to the lessons of history.

For five years, the civil liberties of ordinary Britons were protected by the Liberal Democrats against the right-wing. Now, the Lib Dem brakes are off the Tories, and the future of civil liberties in the UK hangs in the air.

So as Britain champions itself this year as a historical freedom fighter for civil liberties, it is up to the Liberal Democrats – albeit now in opposition – to make sure that “the legacy, the idea [and] the momentous achievements of those barons” who first signed the Great Charter are truthfully and actually safeguarded through yet another five years of Tory rule.

* Alfred Motspur is a 14 year old student who is not currently a member of the Liberal Democrats, although he hopes to be in the future.

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  • I fear we risk being as annacronistic as the Tories if we try and say the Tories was some kind of 13th century version of the ECHR. Civil Liberties wasn’t a concept liberties for some cities, towns, the church and of course the barons was.

  • Richard Underhill 17th Jun '15 - 4:39pm

    The director of “Liberty” was on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday on BBC1. She said that Magna Carta id nothing for women, Jews and serfs (which was almost everybody). It is not law and therefore cannot be enforced.

    She also quoted the late Tony Hancock “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?”

    Historians have pointed out that King John overturned it as soon as he could, although a later version was agreed afer he died.

    The discrimination against Jews was still evident in Shakespeare’s time, as described in the Merchant of Venice, conveniently set by Shakespearein a foreign jurisdiction.

    In modern times we should think about the “kindertransport” which saved the lives of Jewish children, but left their parents under the power of the Nazis.

  • The Baron’s Articles were a feudal attempt at tax avoidance.
    Much of what became known as Magna Carta has been repealed and replaced by other laws. Interesting piece of history but not really the basis of every man’s and woman’s liberty.

  • Magna Carta and Habeas Corpus were the start of a long road on the establishment of Citizen rights in the United Kingdom. These ancient rights were restated by the House of Commons in the 1628 Petition of Rights and again in the Habeas Corpus Act 1679 and the Bill of Rights of 1689 (inspired by the writings of John Locke). Together with the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949, these remain among the most important documents/acts underpinning the unwritten British constitution and precedents of English common law.

    While Magna Carta was no general bill of rights for the mass of the population, it is undoubtedly an important and enduring symbol on the journey to the establishment of Liberal Democracy and civil liberties around the world.

  • Joe
    Let’s not forget The Instrument of Government and The Humble Petition and Advice.

  • It is very curious, but for a time in the 18th and 19th centuries British radicals chose to portray themselves as reactionaries harking back to a past era of freedom and justice. Perhaps it was the difficulty of expressing radical new ideas in an era defined by the French Revolution and Bonaparte, making it much easier to argue for change in Britain if it were couched as a return to the past rather than as joining in with all the dangerous revolutionary stuff going on across the channel. But whatever the reasoning, Magna Carta became part of a story of a more liberal, free Britain and can be used to keep it that way.

  • T-J
    The 800 anniversary is being marked around the world. I saw an article in an English language newspaper by a British Ambassador and the next day there was a letter about the European Arrest Warrant from a xenophobe.Beware of the Whig view of history.The reactionaries are trying to take over.

  • John Tilley 18th Jun '15 - 6:54am

    I don’t want to sound overly negative but there is a major error in your piece.

    You claim that — “…this is the country that wiped totalitarian nationalism off the face of the European continent…”

    That’s not actually true.
    This country boasts that it’s oldest ally was Portugal and did not seem to mind that until the 1970s Portugal had a totalitarian nationalist government
    This country did nothing during 40 years to remove a totalitarian nationalist fascist dictator in Spain (General Franco).
    Despite Royal links with the Greek monarchy the UK did not remove the Junta of Greek Colonels which took over Greece in the 1960s.
    The old Yugoslavia under Tito was not wiped off the continent by this country nor was the old totalitarian nationalist regime in Albania.
    I will not mention the Soviet Bloc.

    Sorry you are very much younger than me but I actually grew up in post 1945 Europe which was mostly run by nationalist totalitarian governments and the UK could not and did not do very much to change the situation.

    You should have checked the facts before you made a grand statement like “…Besides, this is the country that wiped totalitarian nationalism off the face of the European continent”

    Despite all that I agree with your basic belief in the importance of keeping the hard won human rights legislation and as you rightly say – “…it’s hypocritical that the Tories should glorify the Magna Carta whilst scolding the HRA.”.

    The real lesson from history is that the Conservatives are consistently hypocritical and should be opposed at every opportunity.

  • Richard Gadsden 18th Jun '15 - 8:23am

    It’s nonsense to claim the Magna Carta as the oldest charter of civil liberties in Europe. That’s probably the Twelve Tables of Rome. And if you won’t count that, then there are plenty of examples in Athenian history.

    It probably is the first since the change from BC to AD.

  • Well! Learned discussion of history!

    Well done Manfaring for mentioning landmarks of the Civil War and late seventeenth century. I’d have added The Agreement of the People (the Leveller draft constitution).

    I’m with JoeBourke. Of course Magna Carta was not a Human Rights Act, but it was a significant, even surprising, step on the way because the barons and their ecclesiastical backers stated rights of “all freeborn Englishmen” when the politics and power structure of the time meant they had no need at all to do this. They could just have set out baronial rights, as some similar charters in other medieval countries did. But they felt a need to ground their claims in wider natural law, at this stage just for the English. Strangely, these descendants of Norman-French or Anjevin conquerors or immigrants appealed with the help of the Archbishop of Canterbury to rights supposed to have been enjoyed by Englishmen in Saxon times and since suppressed! The actual provisions of the charter did help common people in some significant ways, especially by curtailing the scope of forest law.

    I’m grateful to Alfred for this post. I’ll add that dishonouring of Magna Carta extends to undermining its pledge that no man shall have to buy justice. The coalition, with Liberal Democrat connivance, raised fees for some civil actions to a level at which they priced many people out of justice and actually returned a profit.

  • (Matt Bristol) 18th Jun '15 - 10:31am

    Is not the ancient tradition of church sanctuary the first universal human right in European history?

    IE it was in theory acknowlegded by all to be open to all irrespective of gender or naitonality and the implementation of the right was intended to be free of governmental intervention.

    Most of the baronial era ‘rights’ were instead on a I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine basis, and rooted in a feudal tradition of granting privileges to favoured individuals or groups.

  • As Joe Bourke says Magna Carta was no general bill of rights for the mass of the population but it did establish one crucially important principle that became foundational, namely that everyone, including even the king, is subject to the same law. Of course specific laws can be biased in favour of some group but the principle remains that everyone is subject to that same law.

    So I agree with Alfred Motspur that Cameron is damaging that legacy by repealing the HRA. But before we all start feeling too virtuous let’s remember that the Lib Dems have recently supported a much more direct attack on the legacy of Magna Carta by backing plans to allow a privileged few to be made subject only to their own exclusive law, administered by ‘judges’ employed by and appointed by themselves and NOT to the law of the land that the rest of us are governed by. I speak of course of the ISDS provisions of the TTIP now being negotiated by the EU.

    Actually, I’m not quite sure what the official Lib Dems position on ISDS is currently. Initially, the party was wholly in favour but has had to back off under heavy attack with Catherine Bearder, the sole surviving MEP, apparently changing her position. The whole sorry saga is not, I think, down to any deliberate intention to revoke Magna Carta but rather with the party’s horribly dysfunctional policy-making process and disabling lack of narrative. That needs to change. Radically.

  • Looking forward, in the spirit of Magna Carta and the human rights journey, it would seem the next step is to enshrine the ‘rights’ that members of the public can expect from modern day corporations, some of whom through agreements such as TTIP are seeking to put themselves above the law and national governments…

  • suzanne fletcher 18th Jun '15 - 9:32pm

    Thanks Alfred for taking the time to put your thoughts on paper, and sorry so much negativity in lots of comments above. As I understand it, at the time that it was written it was the very beginning of any form of rights for most people. the very idea of such was not there before.
    It showed a care for powerless people, and whilst more aspiration than action, it was the first time the King came under the rule of law.
    whilst we may laugh at all teh fuss made about where pigs could go in the forest, and deride it for not including women, it was a charter of its time. In 800 years time there will be much that we have done and been proud of that can be derided, but will hopefully been the beginning of something good.
    The bit I think we should be pulling out is the bit about is one of just 3 clauses from that document, which remains in English law today, states that no free man may be imprisoned without a trial or the judgement of his peers.
    in this day and age and so called civilisation the UK locks up people who are not criminal, have done nothing wrong, are imprisoned on the say of a junior civil servant with no judicial oversight, and are there without time limit.
    this is how a number of those seeking sancutary in the UK are treated.
    so can we all band together and campaign to end indefinite detention for immigration purposes ?
    And Alfred Motspur, if you want to know more about this do get in contact, and you are allowed to join Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary at 14 ! even if not yet a member of the Lib Dems, if you agree with our values.

  • Magna Carta is a feudal document mainly concerned with the rights of the Barons. It is by its nature conservative (upholding the status quo)hence why the American Bar association paid for a monument at Runnymede.
    There is still some feudalism left in England. As part of the rights and freedoms of the Church, bishops sit in the Hof L.
    “The city of London shall enjoy all its ancient liberties and free customs” is another clause and they are still enjoying their freedom to rip off everyone.
    The most useful clause about due process only extended to a Freeman. It was an act of genius not to limit its articles to only Barons.Most were serfs in those days. How many are modern-day serfs in today’s Britain?

  • The concept of the English being ruled by law did not start with Magna Carta , various laws included
    .Aethelbert of kent 650AD,. Ine of Wessex 700AD,. Offa of Mercia 750AD, Alfred 870 AD, Edward the Confessor , 1100 Henry 1 Charter Of Liberties, Charter of the Forest 1217 AD, City of London was ruled by Saxon Law. By law from 1181 AD all free men had to haves arms in their homes.

    By the end of the 13C there were large numbers of freemen( 50-70 % of population ) who were well armed , well fed , owned property and who knew they had certain rights and liberties the King nor the barons could take away on a whim. Even serfs had certain rights. Far more people in England had freedoms, arms and food than in continental Europe. The archer could fire 24 shafts in 2 minutes from a war bow with draw weights of up to 200lb and one cannot achieve this unless one east vast amounts of meat. The sign of agricultural wealth and equality was access to meat for the non aristocracy and clergy.
    I would suggest that Magna Carta was a result of a far more egalitarian, freer, wealthier , pragmatic and less despotic country than any in Continental Europe and the document in turn encouraged these value. The nobles of 1215 were aware of the Charter of Liberties of 110 which re-introduced Saxon Law of Edward the Confessor. The consequence was that by the beginning of the 100 Years War( 1340) less than 30% pf England was serfs and even these could buy their freedom and the vast majority of the English knew they were freemen, who were willing to fight for England . The compulsory training in the war bow for all freemen and the fact that many also had swords and some armour meant that the military of the Kings of England depended upon the freemen archers not the aristocracy , as shown by Sluys, Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt . There was the tradition of Magna Carta being read out once a year in villages so people could remember their rights. At the end of the 13C in Continental Europe, 70-80% of population was malnourished serfs who had no access to arms or any form of uniform law and justice and depended upon the whim of the local landowner- there was no travelling King’ judges and juries.

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