12 June 2008

Magna Carta 1215-2008

The people of Great Britain are today willingly locking themselves up and throwing away the keys as they mark the death of Magna Carta, which passed away this week after being set upon in the Houses of Parliament.

Magna Carta, the eight-hundred-year-old document in which were enshrined some of the fundamental liberties of the people(1), was born in 1215, after the brooding, treacherous and incompetent King John got drunk on power one night and was accosted by a large group of rebellious barons whilst on his way to meddle with the forest law, increase scutage(2) and have one of those kebab things the crusaders kept banging on about. It was when the King awoke the following morning in a damp field in Surrey that he discovered that not only had he given birth to one of the earliest examples of constitutional law and sewn the tiny seed from which democracy might one day flower, he had also lost most of his power and inadvertently given Englishmen the right to equality under the law and not to be locked up without trial.

Given the circumstances of its birth, it is unsurprising that Magna Carta proved to be an unloved child. No sooner had it been born than its father attempted to disown it, even getting the Pope to annul large parts of it as "shameful and demeaning" and forced on the King by "violence and fear"(3). Yet despite this, Magna Carta refused to go unnoticed. Thanks to its provisions, for the first time a council was set up to represent the people of England (or at least as many of them as happened to be rich and powerful and have a significant body of knights to back them up) rather than merely to serve the King. It was Magna Carta that first granted the right to be tried by one's peers and insisted fines should be proportionate to the offence, as well as decreeing that only competent people should be appointed to ruling posts (a provision which sadly does not extend to the roles of England Football Manager, Heathrow baggage handler or successful candidate on The Apprentice).

As time passed, the popularity of Magna Carta was to grow. By the reign of Elizabeth I it was being hailed as the embodiment of ancient English liberties, by the time of her Stuart successors as an indispensable limitation upon the powers of the Crown and it was under Magna Carta's banner that Parliament was to seize power from Charles I. Indeed, so useful was it in overthrowing the country's leader that, upon becoming that leader himself, Oliver Cromwell immediately started slagging it off to anyone who would listen, memorably describing it as "Magna Farta".

Despite such attacks, Magna Carta fought on, travelling alongside the common law to all parts of the British Empire and influencing the laws of countries from America to Zambia and encouraging our Georgian and Victorian ancestors to proclaim the superiority and nobility of the British system, even as they sold people into slavery, nicked their land and exported assorted criminals to Australia, where their descendants would one day be responsible for giving us Neighbours and Home and Away in return.

Throughout the 20th Century (aside from a brief funny turn in the 1970s when the British Government decided to help the IRA recruitment drive by locking up without trial anyone in Belfast who pronounced "H" as "haitch" on suspicion of being a terrorist) Magna Carta was hailed as a hero. Yet heroes are not always universally popular(4). By the early Noughties, politicians in such enlightened countries as America, Britain and Zimbabwe found themselves publicly questioning Magna Carta's role. The aged document was said to be looking dowdy and old-fashioned, ill-fitted to a modern world where Presidents and Prime Ministers might need to lock people up in order to defeat terrorism/steal elections and/or look really tough in the pages of the tabloids and the bulletins of Fox News.

In America, Magna Carta found itself hooded, locked up and "questioned" without trial for giving succour to terrorists. In Zimbabwe it was quietly shot for giving succour to people who weren't Robert Mugabe. In the UK it staggered on, forced year by year to turn an ever more scarred cheek as its provisions were slowly whittled away by those whose job it was to defend it.

Just as it was born, so Magna Carta was to die. On 11 June 2008 an incompetent and much-disliked leader was to find himself locked in a room with a group of privileged people of negotiable morality eager to extract any concessions they could. Mere hours later, the body of Magna Carta was found bruised and bleeding its last on the floor of the House of Commons.

Magna Carta will be buried under several promises of knighthoods, the odd multi-million pound bribe, an "Ulster Says No" badge and a populace ever more eager to see their last freedoms destroyed in the name of an unwinnable and illogical "war on terror". It is survived - somewhat surprisingly - by former Shadow Home Secretary David Davis.

(1) as well as not-so fundamental rights relating to the ability of widows to inherit fiefdoms, the duties of towns to build bridges and the like, and a complete ban on any member of the D'Athée family being made a royal official.
(2) a medieval tax, relating either to the right of a knight to buy himself out of feudal service or, possibly, to the use of obscure and long-disused words whilst playing Scrabulous on facebook.
(3) By strange coincidence, these are the same reasons given by many people for wanting to expunge all memory of their renditions of "Uptown Girl" at "the karaoke last night".
(4) As anyone who has ever played a licensed computer game tied-in to the release of the latest superhero blockbuster can affirm.


Baht At said...

welcome back - and what a comeback the demise of the what is probably the oldest human rights legislation in the world

Colin Campbell said...

Welcome Back. Some of these changes are very disturbing and based on past practice, we can anticipate them being considered in Australia within six months. Perhaps longer now that John Howard has departed these shores.

jmb said...

Happy as I am to see you return this topic gives one no pleasure whatsoever.
A one-off or?

The As A Dodo Team said...

Thanks all! As to future Dodo plans, all we can say is 'watch this space' ... well, not *this* space, as it's just for comments, more the general Dodo area.

Moggs Tigerpaw said...

Entertaining I guess, but so very sadly a lot of truth in it too. Good for David Davis though.

As Critical Faculty Dojo pointed out, David Davis maybe one politician who's promises actually are subject to 'legitimate expectation'.

How refreshing would that be?

Maybe you should do an obit on manifesto promises next?

Chervil said...

I am curious to find out whether this is more or less draconian than the Australian Anti-Terrorism Act 2005.

Under the Australian Act, police and intelligence services can detain people without evidence; and without criminal involvement; the detainee may be interrogated by Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO); and worst of all, disclosing that an individual has been so detained or interrogated is, in almost all circumstances, a crime.

Then there are control orders, that can curtail an individual's rights even after they have been released from detention.

Furthermore, significant restrictions have been placed on the right of any citizen to express certain opinions: including criticism, or "urging disaffection", of the sovereign, the constitution, the government, the law, or 'different groups'; exemptions may exist where the target of criticism is agreed to be 'in error'; exemptions appear to exist where the claim is that a feature of a group of people is in some way offensive to the mainstream of society; onus of proof of goodwill is on the defendant - the presumption is not of innocence. (more details at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_Anti-Terrorism_Act_2005#Summary_of_changes)

Australia proudly displays an original copy of the Magna Carta in our House of Parliament.

Lord James Bigglesworth said...

Boys, the Magna Carta was one signing but will you sign up and join us - we-re looking squarely at you now. :)

Anonymous said...

Well you have said it all there....