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Magna Carta and British Values

John of England signs Magna Carta. Illustration from Cassell's History of England (1902)
John of England signs Magna Carta. Illustration from Cassell's History of England (1902)

Seizing on the opportunity afforded by the 799th anniversary of Magna Carta, David Cameron has sought to counter the Trojan horse scandal by ordering that every school pupil be taught the ‘British values’ enshrined in Magna Carta.

Describing the document, agreed on June 15th, 1215, as ‘the foundation of our laws and liberties’, the prime minister has said that the Charter’s principles ‘paved the way for the democracy, the equality, the respect and the laws that make Britain Britain’ and, furthermore, that he will make the occasion of the anniversary the centrepiece of a fightback against extremism.

What are we to make of this highly dramatic intervention, appropriating a major historical anniversary to the needs of the moment? The promotion of the values of Magna Carta by itself can hardly be said to be open to criticism. The whole point of the anniversary is to promote greater awareness of the values proclaimed in the Charter, of what those values mean to us today and how important it is for us to safeguard them.

What is bound to be called into question, however, is the sleight-of-hand involved in harnessing the name of Magna Carta to a highly political – indeed, some would say controversial – campaign to promote what the prime minister calls ‘British values’. This is bad history and bad politics.

The Magna Carta 800 anniversary is one which will be celebrated next year not just in the British Isles but all over the free world. The values of the Charter, especially the idea of freedom under the law, cannot be claimed by one people or confined within one land. These values are universal. Two centuries ago, the ideas of consent and freedom in the Charter, carried across the ocean to the New World, were seized on by the founders of the United States and enshrined in their Bill of Rights. In the 20th century, as one by one the colonies of the British Empire were granted their independence, the ideals of the Charter were enshrined in these countries’ new constitutions. To this day, a copy of Magna Carta sits in the Australian Federal Parliament at Canberra. The resonant clause 39 of the Charter speaks to all of humanity and not just to the people of Britain.

Even at the time of its creation Magna Carta was not the product of a national, much less an insular, culture. One of the key figures in the negotiations between the king and the barons and a man at the heart of the drafting process, Stephen Langton, was one of the most cosmopolitan intellectuals of his day, someone steeped in the culture of the Church and a teacher for much of his career in the Schools of Paris. Langton’s reflections on the bad kings of the Old Testament did much to inform his thoughts on how to rein in a very bad king of England. The influence of the Church can also be seen in the notion of consent to rulership, which is implicit in many of the Charter’s clauses. Equally integral to the Charter’s make-up were the pan-European feudal ideas which informed much political thinking at the time. The feudal contractual language employed in the Charter was the language of the aristocratic class all over Europe, not just of the elite, French-speaking as it happened, in England in John’s reign.

There is bad history, too, in the prime minister’s hailing of Magna Carta as an expression of specifically ‘British’ values. Britain did not exist in the 13th century. King John published the Charter in his capacities as king of England, lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy and Aquitaine and count of Anjou. Scotland was an independent country. The king of Scotland was certainly involved in the rebellion against John and was awarded concessions in the Charter, but the terms of the Charter did not apply in his country – a country which, as Alex Salmond would be quick to point out, lay well beyond the reach of English dominion in the Middle Ages.

To proclaim Magna Carta as a document embodying ‘British’ values is to go a step too far. To harness it to a highly political campaign for the teaching of ‘British’ values in our schools is to constrain its meaning and deny the worldwide significance of the forthcoming anniversary.

Nigel Saul is a member of the Magna Carta 800 Committee and a member of the Conservative Party.