Reflections on Magna Carta - by Keith Best
Why are we commemorating a document which lasted only ten weeks before it was annulled, was not unique either before or after the event and of which so little remains embedded in our current constitution or human rights?
The impact of Magna Carta is felt probably more in other countries than in our own and it is the legacy rather than its currency which we should celebrate. That would not be unusual. We have often exported ways of doing things which either we never have applied to our own system of government or no longer practise and given tomany countries far better constitutions than our own: look around many of the Commonwealth countries today; British influence after the defeat of Nazism on the German Grundgesetz or Basic Law guaranteeing individual freedoms and rights; proportional representation was invented in the UK but, some would say perversely, has been eschewed by so many British politicians that Westminster remains elected on a majoritarian system; it was the tracts of British federalists that Altiero Spinelli read when exiled by the Italian fascists to the island of Ventotene which instilled in him the concept of a united states of Europe to which Monet, Schumann and others later gave form.
Of the only three of the original clauses of Magna Carta still legally valid the most famous is “No free man shall be taken or imprisoned, or dispossessed or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land” but the greatest impact of Magna Carta on the UK constitution, certainly in the way it has been argued, has been on creating a constitutional monarchy. Charles I’s belief in the divine right of kings came up against one of the finest and bravest jurists of all time, Sir Edward Coke, who famously stated “Magna Charta is such a fellow, that he will have no Sovereign.”
In 1956 Winston Churchill wrote “... here is a law which is above the King and which even he must not break. This reaffirmation of a supreme law and its expression in a general charter is the great work of Magna Carta; and this alone justifies the respect in which men have held it.”
So what of the impact of Magna Carta elsewhere than in Britain? Pilgrims leaving Britain for North America in the 17th century they wanted the same rights and the early colonies established charters modelled on Magna Carta. When Boston people defied the Crown the seal of the Massachusetts Bay colony included the image of a militiaman with a sword in one hand and Magna Carta in the other. Thomas Jefferson was influenced by it, the US Supreme Court has a frieze depicting it (and has cited it more than one hundred times in judgments) and all American children learn about it at school. It is perhaps appropriate in view of its history that the monument erected at Runnymede in 1957 to commemorate the Charter was not by any British institution but by the American Bar Association.
When Eleanor Roosevelt urged the General Assembly to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights she stated “The Universal Declaration may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere.” There can be no finer testament.
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