England & Wales Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance

A legacy of liberty: 800 years of Magna Carta

Photo Credit: TrevorLowe via Compfight cc

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.