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Magna Carta’s Birthday

June 15, 2013
“Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you?
Did she die in vain?”

… (Tony Hancock, 1959)

Today is Magna Carta day. Nearly 800 years ago today, some of our most fundamental civil rights began to be imagined in a document that King John was forced to put his seal to. A few years later, after some groveling to the Pope, he was permitted to “unsign” it, but the charter was not forgotten and was re-issued subsequently. Certainly, it’s easy to mock the limitations of this stretch of medieval vellum. It doesn’t do much for women, or for landless serfs but it did create a new definition of civic freedom which has refused to just lie down and die and has some choice and life saving clauses which have been continuously invoked. Many of its provisions have gone to help define our understanding of legal and political freedom across the English-speaking world. The energy and swoop of its logical trajectory has served to gradually include people for whom it was never intended. Rather like the American Declaration of Independence. Yet again let it be noted that the best of Britain’s so-called “national heritage” derives not from our monarchy but rather our struggle against the monarchy.

Magna Carta is one of the most precious things that the islands of North West Europe have ever given the wider world. It is also one of the most fragile. In recent times, governments have done their best to secure for themselves the power to arbitrarily detain people without trial or due process. Without Habeas Corpus – where are we? Where might we be sent? Celebrating the anniversary of Magna Carta is therefore also a re-affirmation and defense of its basic principles. It’s something we take pride in, but can never feel smug or complacent about.

In 2 years time, Magna Carta will be 800 years old. Perhaps we should all be writing to our elected representatives, asking them what commemorative events are being planned. Having spent a fortune on the tedious triviality of mere dynastic longevity, Britain will earn the deserved derision of the world if she fails to accord Magna Carta the celebration she needs and deserves.  But I won’t get my hopes up.  If there’s one thing that Britain is really good at – it is coming up with very loud and expensive ways of telling the world that she’s a much duller country than she really is.

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