SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 189 June 2015

The long fight for rights

Magna Carta, Law, Liberty and Legacy

British Library, London

To 1 September 2015

Reviewed by Jim Horton

This fascinating exhibition at the British Library marks the 800th anniversary of the granting of the original Magna Carta in 1215. Described as a cornerstone of the British constitution, and even an international symbol of freedom, the election of a Tory government bent on further eroding civil liberties and trade union rights makes such an exhibition even more timely.

The exhibition traces the roots of the ‘Great Charter’ in the conflict between King John and aggrieved feudal barons of 13th century England. It takes visitors on an expansive survey over many centuries and continents, including the English civil war, parliamentary reform, Chartism, colonialism, the drafting of American state constitutions, the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and Magna Carta’s influence on more recent radical movements. The story is engagingly presented through a lavish and wide range of documents and artefacts, including the original Magna Carta itself.

The Magna Carta is famously known for its chapter 39 from which, it is claimed, habeas corpus, prohibition of torture, trial by jury, and the rule of law are derived: "No freeman shall be arrested or imprisoned or dispossessed or outlawed or exiled or any way victimised, neither will we attack him or send anyone to attack him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land". Today just three clauses of the 1297 Act, based on the final 1225 version of the charter, remain law in England and Wales. Nevertheless, it is said to have inspired the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1953).

The Magna Carta is often cited as forming a key part of Britain’s traditional values. Conservative threats to the Human Rights Act and proposed curtailment of other civil liberties sit at odds with the view, upheld by the exhibition, that the charter provided the bedrock and inspiration for the gradual evolution of democratic and human rights in Britain, granted by enlightened ruling classes, thus avoiding the continental propensity for revolution.

The new Tory government’s proposals reveal a selective, class, approach to values. This is not a recent phenomenon. The Magna Carta itself is steeped in the class relations of 13th century feudal England, being a treaty among contending forces in a civil war. Subsequent interpretations of the charter were shaped by the interests of opposing class forces as feudalism gave way to capitalism.

The background to the signing of the Charter of Runnymede, as it was originally known in 1215, was the open rebellion of the feudal barons against King John. Having a year earlier lost the duchy of Normandy, the ancestral homeland of the ruling class of England since the Norman conquest of 1066, this tyrant meted out harsh punishment to anyone who failed to pay the excessive taxation imposed to fund military campaigns for its recapture. Facing baronial revolt and a possible French invasion, King John was compelled to agree peace terms which were recorded in the Magna Carta.

It did not, however, herald universal freedoms for the masses. To begin with, as the exhibition points out, the terms of the charter only applied to ‘free men’, which excluded the vast majority of the population. Even the right to trial by jury for the barons was restricted as the jury was part of the royal machinery. What the charter did do was entrench the oppressive feudal system, while limiting the authority of the monarch and advancing the political power of the aristocracy. The charter also protected the privileged position of the church, while acknowledging the interests of the merchants and the nascent urban bourgeoisie.

Magna Carta’s attempt to resolve or contain class conflict failed. Just a few weeks after its signing, the pope, an ally of King John, declared it to be "base, and shameful, null and void". Within a few months the settlement lay in tatters as conflict resumed. Following the death of King John in 1216, the charter was revised in order to bolster support among the barons for nine-year-old King Henry III.

The decline of feudalism rendered the Magna Carta obsolete for a period, until its rediscovery by the rising bourgeoisie who used it to pursue their own class interests. Their interpretation that it guaranteed individual liberties provided the basis of the Petition of Rights in 1628 which sought to limit the authority of King Charles I. Yet during the English civil war both sides appealed to the charter, and it was cited against King Charles at his trial in 1649. The Levellers viewed it as representing a tradition of enfranchising the people against all forms of oppression, whether by king, parliament or Oliver Cromwell’s army. The Diggers, though, dismissed the charter as "a messe of pottage" whose claimed liberties only enfranchised the propertied elites.

In America the Magna Carta became an important constitutional text, with its terms embedded in the laws of several American colonies. Its influence is evident in the Declaration of Independence (1776) and has echoes in the United States Bill of Rights (1791), articulating the American bourgeois revolution against Britain’s tyrannical monarchy. It was in this period of the revolutionary ascendency of the bourgeoisie that the Magna Carta appeared to have real political influence, becoming a symbol of rights and freedoms. Yet, as under feudalism, these were to remain the preserve of the dominant ruling classes.

By the late 18th century, in Britain the charter was referred to in the challenge to press censorship and imprisonment without trial. The exhibition cites the invocation of the Magna Carta by campaigners seeking parliamentary reform. However, the so-called Great Reform Act (1832) merely extended the vote to the industrial capitalists, and was rightly dubbed the ‘Great Betrayal’ by the excluded working-class masses whose militant demonstrations and protests had forced its enactment.

Displaying a Carlisle Chartist meeting poster and wood engravings depicting the procession of the Great National Petition to parliament in 1842, which contained millions of signatures, the exhibition states that the Magna Carta inspired the Chartists’ campaign to extend the right to vote to working-class men. The Chartists derived their name from the People’s Charter and, while some leaders may have sought legitimacy from the Magna Carta, Chartism as a movement would have developed without the existence of the Magna Carta. And the political establishment, notwithstanding its professed allegiance to the Magna Carta, ignored the mass petitions submitted to parliament in 1839, 1842 and 1848. The ruling class resisted the extension of the franchise to the working class until it had no choice but to concede, and it was safe to do so.

British ‘traditional values’ also ensured that justice and civil liberties were not accorded to the early labour movement. Trade unions were banned and brutal retribution was meted out by the courts and military against workers who dared to organise or strike. It was not the Magna Carta that gave workers their trade union and political freedoms, but resolute struggle against a brutal and vindictive ruling class. The exhibition makes no reference to these issues.

This lack of rights extended to the subjects of Britain’s colonies. In fact, the Magna Carta was often used to justify and cover up the abuses of colonisation. The exhibition includes a 1947 letter from the Colonial Office in London dismissing plans to celebrate Magna Carta Day throughout the empire, out of fear that the concept of liberty, based on "uncritical enthusiasm" for the charter, might be seized upon by colonial peoples in their struggles for greater freedoms.

The Magna Carta was drafted, agreed and signed by contending reactionary elites seeking to protect and pursue their own interests against the common good – not by radical individuals representing the interests of the masses. Whatever inspiration and legitimacy it may have provided to radicals over the centuries, advances in civil liberties have been gained in struggles against the resistance of political establishments claiming to uphold the charter’s principles. Only the fight for socialism can secure a permanent end to oppression and injustice, and establish genuine liberty for all.

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