Magna Carta. Highly Thought Of, – By Those Who Have Never Read It!
The year 2015 is gearing up in England for a celebration of the 800 anniversary of the signing of the first Magna Carta in England in 1215. [There were later revised versions]
In the midst of national and international celebration of this document one Supreme Court Justice – Lord Sumption OBE has made a speech which is somewhat out of step with prevailing commentaries.
Lord Sumption says that the Prime Minister David Cameron, “armed with a copy of an Edwardian illustrated text book for children, has called Magna Carta the document that paved the way for democracy, equality and the rule of law as the foundation of all our laws and liberties – elevating Magna Carta to the level of sacred text”.
He goes on:- “claims like those that I have just cited are high minded tosh”.
He explains that a form of historical re-writing has taken place in the last 800 years particularly in the 17th century when Magna Carta was transformed from a somewhat technical catalogue of feudal regulations intended to protect the interests of the Barons and the Church, which is what it actually was, into the foundation document of the English constitution of present reputation.
In a splendid turn of phrase he says that “This is a status which Magna Carta has enjoyed ever since, among the large community of commentators who have never actually read it”.
The full text of Lord Sumption’s speech is here and you will see if you read it that the learned Judge is in no way seeking to belittle the importance and indeed the current significance of the now almost mythological status of Magna Carta.
He agrees that Magna Carta has a symbolic significance. It is seen, however incorrectly, to be a symbol of fairness, of respect for individual rights, of an understanding that no person, not even the King, is above the Law. And it is this fond belief which has become “part of the rhetoric of the English libertarian tradition based on the rule of law – a precocious and distinctively English contribution to western political theory”.
The point he makes is that the Magna Carta of common understanding is not the actual medieval document which is now 800 years old but rather the myth. And as a Myth, more valuable, since it can underpin the ethos of our laws, yet without being as uncompromisingly inflexible as a written constitution would be.
Having said that, his closing words give pause for thought – “Do we need to derive our belief in democracy and the rule of law from a group of muscular conservative millionaires from the north of England, who thought in French, knew no Latin or English, and died more than three quarters of a millennium ago? I rather hope not.”