‘What say the reeds at Runnymede?’ Magna Carta, England and history by Graham Smith

This morning, some of England’s select, joined by lawyers from the United States, assembled on the meadow at Runnymede to mark the sealing of Magna Carta 800 years ago today. The medieval document, with its apparent emphasis on the primacy of the rule of law, not only impacted English constitutional history, but also became important to legislators and rebels across the British Empire, and arguably inspired the constitution of the United States. Even the Prime Minister, having only recently found out about the Great Charter, is now an enthusiast.

BW9-1National Trust sign at Runnymede

A gathering of the privileged recalling the complaints of medieval barons seems an especially apt way to mark this day. For English history has a long continuity of inequality and class structures that favour the rich and punish the poor stretching back and before the thirteenth century. Today’s speakers publicly remind the assembled that no one is above the law and yet privately some will reflect how wealth and power utilised wisely can evade legal redress. Parliamentarians and jurists are not this day suggesting new and effective legal checks to rapacious hegemony in this land of Sir Edward Coke (Attorney General to Elizabeth I, who later used Magna Carta to challenge the despotic rule of Charles I in the late 1620s). The men and women who gathered today could have emulated Coke and pledged themselves to renew democracy and ‘British morality’. Instead, they barely acknowledge old corruption waxing again, with additional new abuses, that create an ongoing series of political crises, including the current British constitutional predicament.

The assumption that Magna Carta became British after the end of the seventeenth century seems an odd one given the retention of differing legal systems, and along with recent arguments that conflate Magna Carta with the Declaration of Arbroath have received little echo in Scotland. A proposed Magna Carta holiday hardly registered north of the border in the fervour of debate that marked political rebirth. The Scots are increasingly keen to challenge ‘traditions’ such as feudal patterns of land ownership, a floundering eighteenth century union, and failing Victorian economics. Meanwhile, the subsequent development of a modern civic nationalism, including a rejection of Scotch myths such as ‘chosen people’, has received little acknowledgement amongst the neighbours. Instead there are those in England who spend their time searching the past for their own country’s historical exceptionalism and elect advocates of EVEL (English Votes for English Laws).

Display panel at Magna Carta exhibition, Egham

The medievalist J.C. Holt conceived of the Great Charter as the long history of an argument. On the one hand, that argument has been about protecting wealth, power and property, and on the other. defending common ownership and individual freedoms. In the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, lawyers raised on constitutional history used Magna Carta to argue alternatively for the rights of slave ownership and for emancipation. The Charter has played a part in the English revolutions and was later cited by those who demanded support for widening suffrage and inclusive civil rights, while being invoked throughout the centuries to promote religious intolerance, imperialism, racism and nativism. Magna Carta has also inspired new charters, most notably after the Second World War the Declaration of Human Rights that was championed by Eleanor Roosevelt. However, the same period witnessed the birth of neoliberalism with F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom being published in 1944. Sixteen years later Hayek clarified the influence of the Charter on his thinking in The Constitution of Liberty. Rule of law, for Hayek and his followers, requires economic freedom without regulation, and economic freedom is dependent on the supremacy of rule of law. In this circularity, Eleanor Roosevelt’s hopes are being smashed.

Such differing interpretations of Magna Carta point to its ongoing success. A document that radicals of all colours can understand in opposing ways can inspire passionate sometimes violent disagreement. In England, a number of exhibitions have acknowledged the significance of the Charter’s far-reaching legacy: most obviously, the British Library’s Law, Liberty Legacy, but also Durham’s Magna Carta and the Changing Face of Revolt, as well as Egham museum’s brilliantly conceived community pop-up exhibition. In contrast, David Starkey, one of the leaders of Historians for Britain refers begrudgingly to ‘a properly conservative attitude to reform’ in his history of the Charter. The dialogic between an imagined past and an unsatisfactory present is just as evident in oral histories collected from amongst those right-wing politicians who have been driving Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary celebrations. In these accounts, there is no clear vision or even a connection to the future. Rather, populist nostalgia dominates as it has this morning amongst the reeds at Runnymede.


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