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September 29, 2014

Magna Carta and Its Influence on Constitutional Matters and Human Rights in the 21st Century

By Sir Robert Worcester, Birmingham UK

Worcester, Sir Robert, Magna Carta and Its Influence on Constitutional Matters and Human Rights in the 21st Century, The Freedom Association, Birmingham UK, Monday 29th September 2014.

Good afternoon

I’d hope to cover three things in my talk this afternoon:

• Why me, why now?

• Why are you here?

• Why commemorate Magna Carta at all?

Why me?

Growing up in America I had a pretty thorough schooling in English history, English literature and not least English cinema (that was before television), which began with the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, then 1066 and all that, in 1215, the Great Charter, later Magna Carta.

From an early age it was “Good” King Richard the Lionhearted, “Bad” King John “Lackland” (and Robin Hood and his merry men, Little John, Friar Tuck, Will Scarlet and all), Henry VIII and Elizabeth the Virgin Queen, Shakespeare, 18th C. Georgian elegance in costume, in architecture and music. And as a teenager, the Ealing comedies, Lavender Hill Mob, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Whisky Galore, and the rest. Must have seen them all, and some four or five times.

I grew up with the belief that ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire’.

And did I collect stamps from all over the British Empire!

All Americans knew then that George Washington, John Adams, John Jay, Benjamin Franklin and nearly all the Founding Fathers were Englishmen (Alexander Hamilton was a Scot).

On my first visit to Britain, in 1957, I was a serving officer in the US Army Corps of Engineers, returning to America to be discharged after serving in Korea, my tour of duty completed.

My first day in London I had planned to go to the British Museum to see two things, the Magna Carta and the Rosetta Stone, which to me represented the two icons of civilised society: the rule of law and communication outside the village.

I became a Trustee of the Magna Carta Trust 21 years ago (when I became Chairman of the Pilgrims Society), the Chairman of the Trust, by Charter was the Master of the Rolls, first the late great Tom Bingham, Lord Bingham, then Lords (Harry) Woolf, (Nicholas) Phillips, (Anthony) Clarke, (David) Neuberger and now (John) Dyson, all distinguished jurists. First under Lord Neuberger and now Lord Dyson, I now serve as Deputy Chairman of the Trust.

It was Tony Clarke and David Neuberger who ganged up on me and gave me responsibility for organising the 800th Anniversary Commemorations.

How could I refuse?

So that’s why I’m here, and why now.

This is also largely the reason for the existence of the ‘Special Relationship’ that bonds my two countries, Britain and America.

As President Obama observed in 2011 in a speech to the British Parliament: “our system of justice, customs, and values stemmed from our British forefathers”.

And President Obama said at Parliament:

“Our relationship is special because of the values and beliefs that have united our people throughout the ages. 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 on man in Magna Carta.”

Why are you here this afternoon?

You believe in freedom. When I mention Magna Carta to people who believe in freedom anywhere in the world, eyes light up. I’d like to start by testing your knowledge of Magna Carta? Who can tell me where the Magna Carta was signed? How many agree?

There are many myths which surround the Magna Carta. That it was only a fight between the barons and the King.

It certainly was, but not only that.

It was the beginning of the spread of modern democracy. Magna Carta was the overturning for the first time of ‘divine rule’ (King John, and somewhat later, King George III’s power over the American colonialists), the beginning of representative democracy, and as Lord Judge, the former Lord Chief Justice of the United Kingdom, recently quoted[2]: “Nullum scutagium vel auxilium ponatur in regno nostro, nisi per commune consilium regni nostri”, which very roughly translated into American means ‘No taxation without representation’. Now which lawyer, which American, hasn’t heard that phrase before?

Did you know that Americans abroad were the last to be franchised? And when? On 7 January 1977 President Ford signed (not sealed) the Overseas Citizens Voting Rights Act after we lobbied Tip O’Neil, then Speaker of the House when we got five minutes with him in 1974, and pleaded ‘no taxation without representation. Before 1977, Americans abroad still had to pay taxes, but had lost the right to vote by moving overseas.

And it was the foundation of human rights, under threat now at home and abroad, as we consider how to cope with the threats which face us in the 21st Century. And civil liberties, as protected in the American Constitution.

Magna Carta enshrined the Rule of Law. It limited the power of authoritarian rule. It paved the way for trial by jury, modified through the ages as the franchise was extended.

Are you aware of the World Justice Project? You should. I would think that you agree with me that it is the rule of law, which began in 1215, when under duress admittedly King John agreed to live in a shared freedom, not in a less than benevolent dictatorship in which he was the dictator.

The World Justice Project uses a working definition of the rule of law based on four universal principles, derived from internationally accepted standards, a system where four universal principals are upheld.

1. The government and its officials and agents as well as individuals and private entities are accountable under the law.
2. The laws are clear, publicized, stable and just; are applied evenly; and protect fundamental rights including the security of persons and property.
3. The process by which the laws are enacted, administered, and enforced is accessible, fair, and efficient.
4. Justice is delivered timely by competent, ethical, and independent representatives and neutrals who are of sufficient number, have adequate resources, and reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.

Would you agree? How would you rate this country on upholding these principles?

The World Justice Project Rule of Law Index measures countries on nine factors:

1. Constraints on Government Powers: 10th
2. Absence of Corruption: 15th
3. Open Government: 9th
4. Order and Security: 15th
5. Fundamental Rights: 23rd
6. Regulatory Enforcement: 10th
7. Civil Justice: 14th
8. Criminal Justice: 14th
9. Informal Justice

And within each of these factors, tests of countries are undertaken annually.

You will not be surprised that consistently, the Scandinavian countries are ranked higher than the UK.

But there are some surprises, e.g.,

Hong Kong is rated 9th on Absence of Corruption, Japan is 11th and Germany 12th while the UK is 15th. We should do better.

That on Fundamental Rights, including sub-factors of Right to Life and Security, Due Process, Right to Privacy, Freedom of Religion, Labour Rights, Freedom of Expression, Equal Treatment and Freedom of Association, the Czech Republic at 11th, Estonia 12th and Slovenia 13th all rated above Britain’s 15th place. We should do better.

This Index is less well known than it should be. I would challenge you to take it on board, and where Freedom and Security meet, the Freedom Association stands firm.

You can find out more about this at

Magna Carta proclaimed certain religious liberties, “The English Church shall be free”.

Magna Carta was England’s greatest export.

Now affecting the lives of nearly two billion people in over 100 countries throughout the world.

For centuries it has influenced constitutional thinking worldwide including in many Commonwealth countries, even in France, Germany, and Japan, and throughout Asia, Latin America and Africa.

Over the past 800 years, denials of Magna Carta’s basic principles have led to a loss of liberties, of human rights and even genocide taking place yesterday, this morning, today and tomorrow.

It is an exceptional document on which all democratic society has been constructed, described by the former German Ambassador when he said to me that everybody in Germany knows about the Magna Carta, it is “The Foundation of Democracy”.

Thirty-eight years ago in all its splendour the House of Common’s Speaker and House of Lords Lord Speaker, MPs and Peers, Law Lords, Ambassadors and High Commissioners, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, met with the senior members of the American Congress and Senate assembled in the 1,000 year old Palace of Westminster’s Westminster Hall to hand over the Lincoln 1215 Magna Carta to the Library of Congress in the Autumn of 2014, to be displayed in the Rotunda of the Congress of the United States. I was there.

This time the plan is to have the Supreme Court organised ‘mock trial’ with judges, jury and advocates, mainly from Commonwealth countries, judging barons and bishops in the dock on the charge of treason, telecast and broadcast on BBC World.

This will be on 31 July, the night before the Supreme Court Magna Carta Exhibition opens for August and September next year. The British Library, starting in November the British Library will have the biggest exhibition it’s ever held.

There will be exhibitions and demonstrations, pageants and concerts, sound and light shows, seminars and symposiums, open lectures and plays in the Magna Carta Towns in Cathedrals and castles, town halls and town squares throughout the land here, and in many exhibitions and events in Canada and the USA, France and Germany, Poland and Trinidad and throughout the Eastern Caribbean, in southern Asia, Africa, Australian and New Zealand, and everywhere that values the principles that the Barons wrenched from the King at Runnymede. They had to fight for it, and we are the beneficiaries of their fight.

You can follow the commemoration of the 800th by signing up to the MC Newsletter at our website and tell us if you’d like to get involved, at And I hope, some of you will be with us next year on the 800th anniversary at Runnymede, and some as well in Westminster Hall for the mock trial at the end of July, or at least watching it on BBC World and I hope PBS in the USA, ABC in Australia, and in Canada on CBC as well as well as in many countries’ TV stations, on the Internet, and elsewhere throughout the world.

Thank you.




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