When King John approved the Magna Carta at Runnymede Green in Surrey using his royal seal of beeswax and resin, he would never have imagined that the treaty would be celebrated in England eight centuries later.
The commemoration took part last Monday near the original signing place, close to the River Thames, and was attended by David Cameron, as well as members of government and the Royal Family.
Latin for ‘The Great Charter of the Liberties’, the Magna Carta was originally devised in 1215 by the monarchy in an attempt to evade an English Civil War. The King had spent a great deal of money trying to capture areas of France, and in the process he had used his royal powers to financially cheat barons in order to fund an unsuccessful campaign.
Under threat of a French invasion and a rebellion from noble powers across the United Kingdom who had rallied against the Monarchy, the King sued for peace and wavered his own royal authority in the process.
There are several common misconceptions about the Magna Carta, including the belief that the treaty marked the beginning of a democratic system in England and introduced the likes of a trial by jury. Rather, the treaty tipped the balance of power and spawned the lasting legacy that no man is above the law. On Monday, the Prime Minister described the document, of which there remain only four original copies, as a “revolutionary document that altered the balance of power between the governed and the government”.
Chapter 39 (29 in subsequent versions) of the Magna Carta, for instance, asserted that “no free man shall be seized or imprisoned…except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land”. In other words, the Monarchy could no longer arrest, exile, or detain whoever they liked unless they had broken a common law. Chapter 40 went on to state that no individual’s right to justice could be sold, denied or delayed.
Although the original document survived and was reissued several times in the centuries that followed, it was never intended as a historic document by King John. In 1215, the Monarch was in a desperate hurry to do whatever he could to appease his rebellious barons. The fact that the principles underlying Magna Carta have endured through the generations is owed largely to people like William Marshal, who was a key adviser during the reign of John’s son, Henry III and then much later, Sir Edward Coke, who as a leading lawyer and judge (former Solicitor General amongst other things) in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and made regular reference to Magna Carta in his pronouncements.
Only a select few of the Magna Carta’s clauses remain law in the United Kingdom today, but what the treaty helped to entrench was a system of law that stood separate from Royal power and which in time grew to overtake it.
The debate about our civil liberties is very much alive today. I have been actively discussing issues such as the Human Rights Act, which some people incorrectly assert to be the source of our freedoms. We have enjoyed civil liberties long before this piece of legislation. My concern it that in recent years, the very term ‘human rights’ has become distorted and devalued to the point where many view it as a charter for criminals and others who have transgressed our laws. This is unacceptable.
The Conservative Party intends to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights. This proposal, which will involve the fullest consultation, will allow a rebalancing of the system so that is is made crystal clear that the final arbiters of legal interpretation of our laws are judges in out Supreme Court and that we will see no recurrence of problems such as the Abu Qatada saga and the prisoner voting cases.
A Bill of Rights would ensure that this country has an organic constitution written by British judges and based on common law (laws which are established over time through precedent) rather than a written constitution like in the United States. It will ensure that rights derived from centuries of our common law, not European law, are represented, and give the core concepts of the Magna Carta a concrete framework.
(This article was originally posted in the Swindon Advertiser on Wednesday 17th June 2015)