A legacy of liberty: 800 years of Magna Carta

Eight hundred years ago (or forty score if one wants to be poetic), bad King John placed his seal on the Magna Carta. Thus an eclectic group of rights and freedoms – everything from standard measures of ale, to fishing, to widows’ inheritance, were enshrined into the English constitutional memory.

Often the Magna Carta is mentioned derisively. It granted rights to the few and the privileged or that not much of it remains relevant today. But I think that’s unfair. While some of the key clauses such as due process and property rights still have influence today, the really important thing was the prevention of central state from impinging on the liberties of individuals and institutions.

Yes, the barons were self-interested, but they continued and codified a legacy of liberty that had a profound impact on the development of civil and human rights in this country and far beyond. We’re right to celebrate it.

We’re also right to continue the argument. Some have criticized David Cameron for marking the occasion with a call for scrapping the Human Rights Act and replacing it with a Bill of Rights. They’re right to be cautious. After all as Thomas Jefferson famously (fictitiously) wrote “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” But perhaps there is something, too, about a locally derived set of universal freedoms. A something that can be signed up to and celebrated and something that is bigger and broader than statute.

Interestingly I spent the morning discussing human rights with visitors from South Korea – and in particular the UN Human Rights Councils report on local government and human rights. One of the principal conditions for local governments to protect and fulfil human rights locally is their own right to existence within a stable constitutional framework outlining duties and powers.

Today’s Barons might legitimately demand such liberty for local government. While they consented to being arms of the state, they needed to have their own freedom and determination in settling affairs and they needed it written down and affirmed. In our devolution road map, we called for a simplification of the devolution process. Perhaps we should look at codification, too.

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Photo Credit: TrevorLowe via Compfight cc

    1. Yes, Ingrid, it would be nice if local government could have a clearly set out bill of rights especially a permanent one that couldn’t be changed by the whim of National government.

    2. Virginia Cumming says:

      Magna Carta is not only about rights, but is also about liberties. Hence the ‘liberties’ given to Cheshire, and many other local towns and cities.

      There should certainly be a new Magna Carta movement in the UK, since old-fashioned ‘Reform’ is needed for many of our institutions, from Parliament to the executive to local government. The UK power base has considerably narrowed over the last 30 years, as successive Prime Ministers and their parties have taken advantage of the system to increase central power against the regions – just as monarchs were always trying to do. Local government has been the main loser.

      For local government, we should be rolling back the central government fiscal powers so arbitrarily set up in the 1980s (notably the 1984 Local Government Act) in order to punish ‘high spending’ councils – and their ‘barons’ – for purely political reasons. This ended centuries of the (much celebrated) independence of British local government which continually acted as a check on the centre. It was ancient local government powers which actually built our cities, and all our local services – and helped carve out the national legislation which rolled out these policies across the country.

      The reason it is so important to get these financial powers back – and to preserve them constitutionally by referring them to the Magna Carta – is that we are going to have to rebuild our economy from the ground up in the decades to come, following the devastation wreaked on our industries by globalisation. Social experimentation at local level, and investment in sustainable local economies can only, yet again, come from local government, when central government currently seems to have no idea how to plan for the long-term future, and is busily divesting itself of staff and expertise.

    3. Dave Cargill says:

      1215 following the Magna Carta of kind John, Ranolf III,
      Earl of Chester granted a charter in the county court of Cheshire. This Cheshire charter granted concessions to his Barons. Historians know this as the Magna Carta of Cheshire. Cheshire is the only county to have its own Magna Carta. ( See the publication by Prof Graeme White
      The Magna Carta of Cheshire).

    4. Sean Brady says:

      I am not qualified to disagree with the author but some of the points she makes appear to vary from the excellent Magna Carta Anniversary Lecture delivered by Professor Linda Colley, Shelby MC Davis 1958 Professor of History, Princetown University to a select audience in the Guildhall, London.
      Surely the really important thing in the 1215 Charter was the acceptance by King John that no man, including the King, was above the law. Whilst this concession was wrung from the King in order to assuage the Barons who threatened to rise up against him, it was more in the guise of a peace treaty than a basic provision of human rights.
      Later Charters (Magna and otherwise) dealt more meaningfully and effectively with human rights.
      I hope that my comments do not evoke the adage “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”.

      1. Ingrid Koehler says:

        You’re absolutely right Sean that this notion that no single power is above the law is the most important thing about Magna Carta*, but that’s not inconsistent with what I’ve written. I think Local Government needs freedom from the tyranny of executive parliamentary whim if we are to have the kinds of enabling and locally decisive councils we wish for.

        *with the possible exception of standard measures of beer – the London Quarter – which is around two pints. I have been served half-measures consistently throughout my adult life in England. I feel somewhat cheated.

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