November 7, 2013
Magna Carta Debate
House of Lords, 7th November 2013
The Rt Hon. Baroness Boothroyd, Betty, The House of Lords and the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, 7th November 2013.
Baroness Boothroyd initiated a debate in the UK’s House of Lords to “ask the Chairman of Committees what plans the House of Lords has to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta”.
Baroness Boothroyd’s opening speech is shown below. To read the full text of Hansard, click MC Magna Carta HoL Debate 7.11.13
Baroness Boothroyd (CB): My Lords, one of the team organising the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta said recently that it was a celebration of democracy, which it is. He then added in a private, off the cuff comment, that this probably ruled out the House of Lords being involved, a jibe I resent and deplore. It not only betrays a gross ignorance of the role of this House in Parliament and its place in the constitution, it is also historically bunkum.
The Barons who forced King John to sign Magna Carta in 1215 paved the way for many of the liberties we and millions of others enjoy throughout the world. Of course, those medieval Barons were not democrats, far from it. But they laid the foundation on which our freedoms are based—the rule of law, the limitation of executive power and the rights of the individual.
Look around you, my Lords. Their statues, as filthy and as dirty as they are, adorn our walls. Sixteen of the Barons and two Bishops who were at Runneymede look down on us. They changed the course of history, which is why I want this House and this Parliament to be in the forefront of the anniversary celebrations. Sadly, it will not be, according to the plans so far announced. I am told that my views on this are unhelpful but I make no apology.
Preparations for the anniversary have been underway for several years and one of the key decisions needs to be challenged. The highlight of the anniversary will be the display of all four surviving copies of the original charter in the British Library. Parliament will be a backcloth to the celebrations, not a focal point. True, we have two facsimile copies of Magna Carta in this House. One is in one of our Division Lobbies and has been there for a very long time; the other is in the Royal Gallery, put there recently, courtesy of the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell. But they are not the real thing and the British Library intends to restrict the display of the four surviving originals to allow experts to study them and members of the public who pay to see them, or with free tickets obtained by ballot. I understand that the originals will be reunited for just three days before two of them are returned to the custody of Lincoln and Salisbury Cathedrals. What visible role will this Parliament play in all that? I have yet to be enlightened. I look to the Front Bench to enlighten me on that.
This is rightly a joint Anglo-American celebration. I have to say the Americans have seized the opportunity to show what they owe to Magna Carta with greater enthusiasm than anything so far evident on this side of the Atlantic. The Law Library of Congress will display a later revision of the Great Charter sent from England. Another copy will go to the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Texas, where over a million people are expected to see it. Parliament will have nothing to match that. Yes, certainly there will be events in Parliament Square, a parliamentary education centre if the money can be found, and the annual Parliament Week with its own programme of events, which are all well and good.
But I submit we need to do more, a lot more, to raise public interest and alert the nation to the significance of what happened 800 years ago.
As things stand, my concerns and my fears are that we shall lose a once-in-a-century opportunity to proclaim Parliament’s seminal role in the advancement and protection of Magna Carta’s most basic principles. In many parts of the world, they are still revolutionary principles. Billions of people are denied their basic human rights. Let us rekindle their hope by showing them that change is possible and democracy works.
Let us not forget either that 2015 is the 750th anniversary of Simon de Montfort’s Parliament—another Baron who confronted an over-mighty executive. Let us remember also the monarchy’s role in all this.
The Queen is patron of the Magna Carta Trust, which oversees the celebrations. The monarch is sovereign because the Crown is constitutional. That seed was also sown in 1215 and the monarchy is stronger than ever before.
Previous efforts to involve Parliament more closely have got nowhere. Last December, the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, asked what plans the Government had for the anniversary. He offered a brilliant idea. He suggested that the four original copies of the charter should be exhibited together for the first time, perhaps in Westminster Hall. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, replied for the Government at that time. “That’s a very good suggestion”, he said. He was sure the organising committee would welcome it. I regret to say they did not and I hope very much they will reconsider. Let there be no doubt about it: the original copies of the charter should be here in Westminster Hall. I will tell you something: if I were still wearing the robes of Speaker of the Commons, I would ask for a joint session of both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall to celebrate the anniversary, with at least one of the original charters as its centrepiece. The British Library could surely spare one of its two originals for just one day. We have held joint sessions in Westminster Hall for royal occasions and visiting leaders. What I propose would be no less memorable. I believe the whole world should see Magna Carta honoured where it truly belongs: in the heart of our democracy.
I am delighted to see my colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, in his place this afternoon. When this question was first raised in this House, he said: “Magna Carta … remains one of the most noble documents of human history”.—[Official Report, 17/12/12; col. 1335.]
He was right. Let us rededicate ourselves to its principles in a manner that befits this Parliament and safeguards its most precious rights.