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October 24, 2011

Magna Carta Day Holiday?

Magna Carta Memorial, Runnymede.

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to designate Monday 15 June 2015 as a bank holiday in the United Kingdom to mark the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta; and for connected purposes.

On 15 June 1215, the foundations of our democracy were laid when King John met his barons at Runnymede and sealed the historic document that has become known as Magna Carta. The effect of the Bill, which I now bring before the House, would be to celebrate appropriately the 800th anniversary of that momentous occasion. The concept of celebrating Magna Carta has widespread support. Indeed, Mr Speaker, we are grateful to you for having hosted in the Speaker’s House in June this year the inaugural meeting of the all-party parliamentary Magna Carta group, many of whose members are present this afternoon.
What better way to celebrate freedom than by having a day’s holiday? I appreciate, of course, how difficult it is for businesses, service providers and schools to deal with the consequences of a day’s holiday, and I am not suggesting that 15 June should be an extra day’s holiday, but, given the current discussions about moving the May bank holiday, the perfect replacement for the first Monday in May would be 15 June: Magna Carta day.

There is something unique and very special about celebrating Magna Carta. Its significance goes far beyond these shores. Upon it are based not only our own constitutional freedoms, but those of the United States of America, most of the Commonwealth and much of the European Union. Even in Scotland, where Magna Carta never had any force, its value as a constitutional document is still appreciated.
The committee set up by the Magna Carta Trust, ably led by the inimitable Sir Robert Worcester, is proposing a Magna Carta day to the American Congress, to the Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, Trinidadian, Indian, South African and all Commonwealth Parliaments and to the legislatures of all countries that hold our values and suggesting that they observe the 800th anniversary and declare their Magna Carta day to share with ours.

The German ambassador, when asked recently about the salience of Magna Carta, responded, “Magna Carta is known to everyone in Germany as the foundation of democracy—it is in the school syllabus.” What a pity it is not in our school syllabus.

Winston Churchill was, of course, absolutely right, as ever, when said that Magna Carta was
“the foundation of principles and systems of government of which neither King John nor his nobles dreamed.”

Magna Carta established the very idea of the rule of law. It was the first formal document to insist that no one is above the law, however high his or her status. It also established that Executive power must proceed by recognised legal process, never unlawfully, when action is taken against an individual.
In the 800 years since the principle of the rule of law was thus set down, every aspect of our country’s development has been influenced by it. This is not just dry, legal doctrine; it is our dependence on the belief in this fundamental freedom that has shaped our nation’s character, fostering belief and pride in our basic liberty and giving us the confidence to question authority. What began as an agreement to give people freedom from royal interference has developed over eight centuries into a range of fundamental liberties. Now it is not the monarch who tries to interfere in the lives of our people; it is the state.
As we—Parliament—battle daily to keep the people we represent as free as possible from state interference, the principles of Magna Carta are every bit as important as they were 800 years ago. British people know that they have an inalienable right to freedom and to challenge the authority of Government. We have fought for that right through the ages—not only for ourselves, but for others right across the world.

Looking at the events of the so-called Arab spring over the past few months, we see how much still has to be done in trying to win those precious rights for those who still do not have them. As President Obama said when he addressed our Parliament in May:
“Centuries ago, when kings, emperors and warlords reigned over much of the world, it was the English who first spelled out the rights and liberties of man in the Magna Carta… through the struggles of slaves and immigrants, women and ethnic minorities, former colonies and persecuted religions, we have learned better than most that the longing for freedom and human dignity is not English or American or Western—it is universal, and it beats in every heart.”

Magna Carta is a rare piece of legislation, perhaps unique, that has not just endured but evolved over the centuries. Although many of its provisions have been repealed, and rightly so, by later legislation, its principles none the less echo throughout the ages and across the globe today. Today, we need to rein in the power of an overbearing nanny state just as much as our forebears of the 13th century had to restrain the power of the king.

I am not asking that we declare a bank holiday to mark the signing of some dusty old piece of 13th century paper or, indeed, the actions of an unpopular monarch some 800 years ago. We need a special holiday so that the British people can celebrate today’s freedoms on 15 June 2015—Magna Carta day. Our constitution, our civil liberties, our individual rights, the rule of law and the bedrock of our democracy are all too often taken for granted. However, we must never forget that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, so let us cherish and appreciate our freedom and let us celebrate it.
I urge the House to support the Bill to give the people a holiday to celebrate Magna Carta and all that it still stands for.

Question put and agreed to .
Ordered ,
That Mrs Eleanor Laing, Mr Graham Allen, Helen Goodman, Robert Halfon, Oliver Heald, Mr Bernard Jenkin, Mr Peter Lilley, Mrs Anne Main, Stephen Metcalfe, Mr David Ruffley, Iain Stewart and Mr Jack Straw present the Bill.
Mrs Eleanor Laing accordingly presented the Bill.

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