Eight hundred years ago this coming Monday on the banks of the river Thames at Runnymede – an event of extraordinary significance took place. A document was signed which contained the notion that the Government ought to be subject to the law, rather than the other way around. Magna Carta, sealed by King John in 1215, was the genesis of the rights and freedoms we enjoy today, under which constitutional government in liberal democratic nations now flourishes.
Some of you may think what has this eight-hundred year old document got to do with my life today. After all, as the British Library points out, only three of the original sixty-three clauses remain on the statute book. One guarantees the freedom of the Church, one the City of London but it’s the third that is most crucial. It guarantees against state coercion; you can’t be locked up or your property taken other than by due process in conjunction with the law of the land and the judgement of your equals.
As Rudyard Kipling puts it succinctly in his wonderful piece of poetry:
“No freeman shall be fined or bound,
Or dispossessed of freehold ground,
Except by lawful judgment found.
And passed upon him by his peers.
Forget not, after all these years,
The Charter Signed at Runnymede.”
Late last month, I visited Salisbury Cathedral where one of the four original copies of that precious parchment is housed. Well worth a visit. Alongside The Great Charter, they’ve an interactive exhibition with indices from each country in the world, detailing corruption, censorship and political freedom, amongst others. In that one map you cannot get a clearer demonstration of the difference between liberal capitalist countries where private property and free contract are protected, as set out in Magna Carta, and socialist countries where the state has greater control over the individual. The latter are more corrupt and authoritarian, whereas the former are more prosperous and more free.
Magna Carta ensured that a set of rules came up from the people. It’s demonstrated by our common law where each judgement provides a basis for the next; the law elevated above the government and the freedom of the individual above the arbitrary authority of the monarch. So this weekend let’s celebrate the foundation text of our shared liberty, The Great Charter, Magna Carta.
Cllr Phil North