Debating the influence of Magna Carta 800 years on

In June, UCL hosted a workshop organised by the Political Studies Association exploring to what extent Magna Carta still influences the UK constitution and British politics. Colin Murray reports.

As the 800th anniversary of events at Runnymede draws closer, 18 June saw a one-day workshop on the influence of Magna Carta organised by the Political Studies Association and hosted by University College London. With official pronouncements on the anniversary talking up ‘celebrations’ of the Magna Carta the time is ripe for a reconsideration of its ongoing influence. If, as Robert Hazell said in his introductory remarks, the UK Constitution can be described as a ‘winner takes all’ system, can we really say much at all for the influence of a document which purports to be at the root of ideas of limited government?

As the eleven panel presentations unfolded, the tenor of debate very much suggested that the Magna Carta has long since ceased to have practical implications as a legal instrument. Its terms have for the most part been repealed or superseded. Only the spirit persists, which of course makes it particularly valuable to political actors as a foundation myth (as explored by Natalie Riendeau) or to judges as a rhetorical device (Craig Lerner). These views were reinforced by Vernon Bogdanor, who considered that accounts of Magna Carta were in danger of remembering the future and forgetting the past. With the present very much in mind, Bogdanor drew an analogy between the power struggles which precipitated Magna Carta and the uneasy constitutional compromise it established and the present shifting relationship between parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law within the UK Constitution. Expanding upon this theme, Anthony King posed the question of who the barons were within today’s political system. Nora Williams would later reprise this issue by considering Magna Carta’s lessons for contemporary accounts of judicial supremacy in constitutional arrangements.

This current generation of power brokers, as Roger Mortimore indicated, inhabit a political system with very little general understanding of Magna Carta and its significance (perhaps best highlighted by David Cameron’s inability to literally translate Magna Carta when quizzed in 2012 by US talk-show host David Letterman). But rather than being content with more school lessons on the Magna Carta, Conor Gearty and Clodagh Harris would rather crowd source a modern equivalent based in part on its values. As to what those values are, myth-making once again to the fore, for the afternoon sessions delved into more disputed elements of Magna Carta’s history. Renee Lerner set up how Magna Carta ‘followed the flag’ as the British Empire expanded, but drove home how this process saw a parsed and frequently reinterpreted Magna Carta brought into play (particularly evident in debates leading up to the Declaration of Independence by the American colonies). Derek O’Brien moved this story into the Caribbean the ‘Sugar Colonies’ where Magna Carta was deployed not as a charter of liberties but as a slavers’ charter, enabling slave owners and traders to protect their ‘property’ interests into the nineteenth century. Indeed, as Geraldine van Bueren rounded off discussion, the celebration of Magna Carta revolves almost entirely around discussion of limited government, and comes at the expense of neglecting the proto socio-economic rights to be found both in the Magna Carta itself and in the Charter of the Forest that was ultimately cut out of it as a stand-alone document.

Whilst these contributors would seem to concur that Magna Carta has been influential on debates on constitutionalism through to this day, this workshop should give pause for thought to anyone who would look at this legacy uncritically.

Colin Murray is Senior Lecturer at the Newcastle Law School.

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