We are about to be deluged with establishment cant about Magna Carta, on account of its approaching 800th anniversary. A splendid antidote to this is provided today by Anthony Barnett of openDemocracy.net.
any authentic celebration of Magna Carta would be a sober, serious challenge to the status quo, unlike the celebratory website proclaiming “The Magna Carta has been the most valuable export of Great Britain to the rest of the world”. For all its eulogies it cannot bring itself to reproduce the actual Magna Carta itself, let alone the Charter of the Forests.
This is not to make an anachronistic claim that the Magna Carta was ‘progressive’. It was a feudal deal. It is the myth that matters: an inspiration to challenge arbitrary, despotic power; a seed for a democratic constitution; a right to be ruled by law; and even, thanks to its companion Charter, a claim that land be held in common not enclosed for profit.
To snuff out all such radicalism, the official celebrations of its 800 years will be funded twelve months hence by £1million from chancellor George Osborne and we will be palmed off with an assortment of Magna Bollocks, to express gratitude to Britain’s ruling order gifting liberty to the globe.
That is how Margaret Thatcher saw it after 1989. Unable to prevent the unification of Germany she planned to use a Paris Summit on European security in November 1990 to launch a Magna Carta for Eastern Europe. I attended the press conference, in the ballroom of the British Embassy and asked her, “Prime Minister, why, when you called upon this Summit to entrench rights across Europe, do you not agree with Charter 88 that we should have entrenched rights in the United Kingdom?” She replied, “We are in this Summit to get rights way across the European Divide… to call for the Community to extend democracy to other countries…”.
Within three days, British democracy such as it was, forced Thatcher to resign. Let’s hope that the curse of the Magna Carta brings down our present bunch of manipulative populists. Eight hundred years of rule by Barons is enough. It is the peoples’ turn. We do not just need a Magna Carta for the World Wide Web as Tim Berners-Lee has called for, we need a democratic constitution: to govern Parliament now that it has been corrupted and suborned, to define our relations with Europe and secure our claims to privacy, liberty and, in a digital age, our metadata.
Right on. Earlier in the piece, Barnett recalls the time that Professor Peter (now Lord) Hennessy, who taught modern British political history at Queen Mary College, to meet the then Cabinet Secretary, Sir (now Lord) Robin Butler.
One of the students innocently asked what is the British constitution. Butler answered, “something we make up as we go along”.
“Who is this ‘we’ that makes it up?” asks Barnett.
It is certainly not ‘We, the people’. When Sir Robin was speaking, he was part of the last remnants of the old Establishment. Now the British Constitution is something GCHQ makes up, as it goes along.