800 years ago today at Runnymede King John and his barons made an agreement that is the foundation of our current freedoms.
Or so the tale is usually told. It will not come as a surprise to anyone that it’s just a little more complicated than the simple and common narrative makes out.
The origins of Magna Carta, the great charter, are somewhat less pastoral than the image of a king and his barons in a field politely hammering out an agreement for the betterment of the kingdom. They were in that field because it was in neutral territory between their armies.
Originally, Magna Carta only applied to the classes that were involved in writing it, the aristocratic land owners and the king. It lasted less than a couple of months before King John petitioned the Pope to annul te agreement because it had been forced out of him. Magna Carta was then renewed and expanded several times over the next decade. It has since become more of a totem than an actual legal document.
I went to Lincoln in April, and visited the new vault at the castle for the Lincoln 1215 Magna Carta, and the Forest Charter. The text of the Carta is picked out on the wall in black with the clauses still on the statute books – jury trial and not being imprisoned unlawfully – picked out in gold. It was quite moving.
The prime minister David Cameron has said that he wants to abolish the Human Rights Act and restore Magna Carta’s legacy. I’d have thought that was a contradiction in terms. The parts of the Magna Carta that are important are a part of the Human Rights Act. Cameron is trying to hoodwink people with faux-patriotic tripe. By suggesting we remove the Human Rights Act and ‘restoring’ the Magna Carta he’s trying to persuade us that the HRA is unBritish, unlike the Magna Carta. Unfortunately for him, the Human Rights Act was pushed by the UK. The Magna Carta has acquired a legend as being for the good of everyone, whereas in fact it was written by and supports only the most wealthy members of society – such as Mr Cameron and friends.