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October 13, 2011

Relevance of Magna Carta to Human Rights in the 21st Century

By Lord McNally - Justice Minister

Magna Carta 2015 800th Anniversary Launch ,Runnymede

Thank you My Lord

I would like to add my own thanks to Ken’s – first, to you Lord Neuberger who, as the Master of the Rolls, chair the Magna Carta Trust, as did your illustrious predecessors Lords Clarke, Phillips, Woolf and the much missed Lords Denning and Bingham. And my thanks also go to the Magna Carta Trustees, to Runnymede Council, and to everyone involved in arranging this event today.

I’m pleased to be here in my role as Minister for civil liberties and human rights, because as well as being an enthusiast for civil liberties and human rights, I’m also a Magna Carta enthusiast.

The Lord Chancellor has reminded us that Magna Carta was not merely the outcome of a struggle between the King and the Barons. It involved the people as well, and it provided the basic principles on which the British state has been governed for nearly 800 years.

…that the power of the state is not absolute;

…that whoever governs the state must obey the law;

…and that whoever governs the state must take account of the views of those who are governed.
Magna Carta has been called the most influential secular document in the history of the world.
Its importance lies not just in the rights and liberties it sets out – though those are tremendously important.

But it also records an agreement by an all-powerful king who acknowledged no superior on earth, whose word was law, that he could no longer do just as he liked; that he could no longer rule without legal restraint.

The promises Magna Carta contains are as important today as they were in 1215. We only need to watch the TV news, or read the newspapers, to know that even today they are still to be realised in many parts of the world.

Magna Carta summed up ancient liberties and provided a springboard for modern ones. Those included the principle of habeas corpus, developed in the 17th Century – that no one, not just barons, could be imprisoned unlawfully. And that in turn led on to the Bill of Rights of 1689, which reflected long established traditions of personal liberty and freedom from state oppression.

Of course, even in these islands, we have taken several different paths to the realization of these liberties: Magna Carta’s specific articles did not then apply in Scotland where the struggle for freedom took its own distinctive path; habeas corpus was first applied in Ireland only in the 18th Century, as your guest the Irish Attorney General, here with us today, will know; and its equivalents were introduced in Scotland only in the 19th Century.

However, whether they came sooner or later, what all of these developments had in common, from Magna Carta onwards, was a sensible suspicion of state power. And that is always a suspicion worth cultivating in a healthy democracy.

Ever since the principles of good government were established in the UK, we have retained a leading position in the world in defining the relationship between the power of state and the freedom of the individual.

The commitment to liberty and the freedom of the individual was one of the cornerstones of the Coalition’s programme for government.

In that programme, we made very clear our uncompromising commitment to human rights and to the European Convention on Human Rights.

That should come as no surprise to anyone. 60 years ago, at the end of the Second World War, Winston Churchill called for “a Charter of Human Rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law” to ensure that the atrocities and mass murder committed by totalitarian states before and during the War would never be repeated.

So let’s be clear. Human rights are not a foreign import. They are part of our national DNA, and have been since 1215, and even centuries before.

We want people in Britain to understand their rights and liberties so that we are all equipped to assert our own personal freedoms and can help build a fairer society.

And we also want to make sure that no-one in authority is tempted to use human rights wrongly as an excuse for inaction or for silly decisions.

Because in almost all cases the human rights of any individual can and should be balanced in a common-sense way against the rights of others and the wider needs of society.

This is as true now as when Magna Carta was sealed. No-one said that King John could not govern, or uphold the interests of the state; only that he had to treat his subjects in a reasonable way, within the law.

We celebrate Magna Carta today because it is our first great assertion of the rights of the individual against the power of the state – the first great affirmation of the rule of law as the basis of government.

We should cherish that heritage, and celebrate the gift that those who framed and enforced the Magna Carta have given to us.

It’s a rare and special gift. Let’s enjoy it.



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