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 Its terms have for the most part been repealed or superseded.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.