October 26, 2015
Magna Carta: Did she die in vain?
Magna Carta: Did she die in vain?
Baroness Hale, Deputy President of the Supreme Court, Gray’s Inn, 19 October 2015.
Click here to read the article as it originally appeared on the UK Supreme Court website.
Click here to download this speech as a PDF.
My title comes from a famous clip from ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’, first broadcast on 16 October 1959, where Tony Hancock mimics the role of Henry Fonda in ‘Twelve Angry Men’, trying to persuade a jury to his point of view. ‘Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you?’,cartier santos 100 replica he asks. ‘Did she die in vain?’ But he seems to have had just as many misconceptions about Magna Carta as the authors of 1066 and All That, and probably most of the rest of us, at least until we began to research it for the purpose of this 800th anniversary. For he went on: ‘that brave Hungarian peasant girl who forced King John to sign the pledge at Runnymede and close the boozers at half past ten’. If that were indeed what the King had agreed to, she would certainly have died in vain, now that the boozers can stay open much later but many are closing because alcohol is so cheaply available in retail outlets that people do not feel the need to go out to drink.
This lecture series has certainly helped us to understand more about what Magna Carta really meant. Lord Judge opened the series with a rattling good yarn about how it came about, how it was annulled, how it was reissued by King John’s successor, and several times later, how it survived and was revived in later centuries on both sides of the Atlantic. Lord Neuberger compared it to the near- contemporary idea of the Holy Grail, because it later achieved similar mythical status. Sir John Baker will be exploring the Templar connection between 1215 and 1628. What I want to do is to explore its contemporary relevance. Judicial decorum dictates that I should do so without entering into party political controversy. But perhaps I can approach that delicate task through three other anniversaries which are celebrated this year.
Although some historians tend to be dismissive of the importance of Magna Carta, we lawyers can trace at least three great ideas back to the original, the Magna Carta of 1215. The first and greatest idea stems from chapters 39 and 40 of the original Charter, combined as chapter 29 in the 1216 and all later versions. It seems appropriate to quote from the 1297 Charter,4 in the wording which still appears on the statute book today:
‘No free man shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his freehold or liberties or free customs, or be outlawed or exiled or in any other wise destroyed; nor will we not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man right or justice.’
As Lord Bingham has said, those words still ‘have the power to make the blood race’. They embody the individual’s right to life, liberty and property, not to be arbitrarily infringed by the rulers, but only in accordance with the law.
The second great idea came from chapter 12:
‘No scutage or aid is to be imposed in Our Kingdom except by the Common Counsel of Our Kingdom unless for the ransoming of Our person and knighting of Our first-born son and for marrying once Our first-born daughter and for these only a reasonable aid is to be taken.’
This was followed up by chapter 14, another of my favourites:
‘And in order to have the Common Counsel of the kingdom for the levying of an aid . . . or for the levying of scutage We are to cause the Archbishops Bishops Abbots Earls and Greater Barons to be summoned individually by Our letters and moreover We are to have a general summons made through Our Sheriffs and Bailiffs of all who hold in chief of Us for a fixed day at least forty days thence and at a fixed place . . .’
My own blood raced shortly after the last Parliament was dissolved, when I received just such a summons, giving me exactly 40 days’ notice of ‘a certain Parliament to be holden at Our City of Westminster’.
Sadly, chapters 12 and 14 did not survive into the 1216 and later reissues. They were not denied, but being deemed ‘important but doubtful’, they were ‘deferred until we have fuller counsel, when we will, most fully in these as well as other matters that have to be amended, do what is for the common good and peace and estate of ourselves and our kingdom’. They never reappeared.
The third great idea, which permeates the whole Charter, is that the King and his officials are as much subject to the laws of the land as are his subjects. The rule of law is not one-way traffic: not only do the governed have to obey the law, but so do the governors. This was reinforced by my own favourite chapter in the 1215 Charter, chapter 42, also sadly omitted from the later reissues:
‘We will not appoint Justices Constables Sheriffs or Bailiffs except from such as know the law of the Kingdom and are willing to keep it well.’
The closing words of what is now chapter 29 also embody the individual’s right to access to justice, before an incorruptible decision-maker who will judge according to law and not by the size of the bribe, which is the first requirement of any ‘impartial tribunal’.
Further, by chapter 60 of the original Charter:
‘Moreover all the aforesaid customs and liberties which We have granted to be maintained in Our kingdom as far as We are concerned with regard to Our own men all the men of Our Kingdom both Clergy and Laity are also to observe so far as they are concerned with them with regard to their own men.’
The promises made by the king to the barons were to be cascaded down through the feudal ranks. These are the three great pillars of modern constitutionalism – the liberties of the individual, the consent of the people to taxation and other burdens, and the rule of law – but they all beg the question: what is the law and who makes it? The answer was certainly not clear in 1215 and took many centuries to establish. But where stand those three great ideas today?
As to the first, I do not propose to discuss where we are with the substance of each of the rights renumerated in what became chapter 29, rather to ask where we are with the idea of such rights. And where better to look than another important anniversary which we celebrate this year, the 250th anniversary of the great case of Entick v Carrington? Contrary to popular belief, this was not a case about general warrants, but it established some important principles which are with us to this day. And as are we today, it was concerned with the delicate balance between the needs of effective government and the freedom of individuals to oppose such government. Oliver Cromwell had little doubt about which should prevail, allegedly saying that “your magna farta cannot control actions taken for the safety of the Commonwealth”. He was not alone. The power of the Secretaries of State, the King’s principal ministers, to issue warrants without any judicial authority to apprehend, detain and question people suspected of treason or even seditious libel was recognised in the case law of the King’s Bench.
The chain of events which culminated in Entick v Carrington began with a series of cases prompted by issue No 45 of The North Briton, a weekly news sheet which was highly critical of the King and his government. The anonymous author, John Wilkes MP, countered the plea in the King’s speech to Parliament for ‘that spirit of concord, and that obedience to the laws, which is essential to good order’, with the retort that the ‘spirit of concord’ was not to be expected of people who were being made subject to arbitrary searches and seizures, rather the ‘spirit of liberty’ should rise up in proportion to the grievance they felt – ‘freedom is the English subject’s Prerogative’.
Lord Halifax, Secretary of State, issued a general warrant, authorising the King’s Messengers to search for the unnamed authors, printers and publishers of The North Briton and to seize them and their papers. Wilkes and a number of printers and apprentices were rounded up under the warrant, eventually achieved their release and brought actions for false imprisonment and trespass. Wilkes, of course, was a prominent politician but the others were ordinary folk who had never brought such actions before. The juries found for the plaintiffs and awarded them large sums in damages. In none of these cases was the issue of the legality of such warrants clearly raised and decided, although both Chief Justice Pratt, of the Court of Common Pleas, and Lord Mansfield, Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench, expressed the view that they were not.
Indeed, Pratt CJ, in declining to interfere with the jury’s awards, observed that the jury had been struck by the Secretary of State ‘exercising arbitrary power, violating Magna Carta, and attempting to destroy the liberty of the kingdom’. The result was that it became unsafe to rely on general warrants and no more were issued.
Matters did come to head with Entick v Carrington. Halifax had issued a specific warrant, authorising Carrington and three other King’s messengers to search for the plaintiff, to seize and apprehend him, and bring him together with his books and papers, before the Secretary of State to be examined concerning his authorship of The Monitor, another weekly news-sheet, which was said to contain ‘gross and scandalous reflections and invectives upon His Majesty’s government and upon both Houses of Parliament’. The jury found that the messengers had broken and entered the plaintiff’s house, had stayed there for four hours, all the time disturbing him in his possession thereof, had searched several rooms, and in one bureau or writing desk, and several drawers, had read over and examined several of his papers, and seized and taken away some of his books and papers. They had also seized and taken away the plaintiff, who had then been released on bail, and was released from his recognisances a few months later. This was all part of the government strategy. They did not generally plan to prosecute for sedition, merely to harass and disrupt publication. Cleverly, Entick’s claim was not for false imprisonment, but for trespass to land and goods. The jury returned a special verdict, setting out the facts and asking whether the search and seizure in pursuance of the warrant were lawful; if not, they awarded £300 in damages. This time, the issue of the legality could not be avoided. Lord Camden, as Pratt CJ had become, presiding over the full Court of Common Pleas, was determined to decide it. The court found for the plaintiff.
As to the claim that such warrants had been in use, at least since the Glorious Revolution, ‘[T]he usage of these warrants since the Revolution, if it began then, is too modern to be law; the common law did not begin with the Revolution; the ancient constitution which had been almost overthrown and destroyed was then repaired and revived; the Revolution added a new buttress to the ancient venerable edifice.’ As to the lack of challenge hitherto: ‘It must have been the guilt or poverty of those upon whom such warrants have been executed, that deterred or hindered them from contending against the power of a Secretary of State and the Solicitor of the Treasury, or such warrants could never have passed for lawful till this time.’
The court had to accept that there were binding precedents recognising the power of the Secretary of State to issue warrants of arrest and committal, not only for high treason, but also for seditious libel. Departing from them would be more damaging to the law than following them, even though the court disapproved of them as contrary to history. But it refused to go further and allow for searches and seizures. The evidence given in all the earlier cases which Pratt CJ had tried had shown how these could be used in an arbitrary and speculative manner:
‘If this is law it would be found in our books, but no such law ever existed in this country; our law holds the property of every man so sacred that no man can set his foot upon his neighbour’s close without his leave; . . . if there was [such a law] it would destroy all the comforts of society; for papers are often the dearest property a man can have.’
Once again, the appeal is to history, to the venerable edifice of the common law. Not only that, although the action was for interference with property, the real gravamen was seen as the interference with privacy. This is a clear foretaste, not only of article 4 of the American Bill of Rights, but also of the ‘right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence’, now protected by article 8 of the European Convention. The court also held that where torts had been committed, there was no defence of state necessity. There could be limits placed on liberty, for it must not become licentiousness, but if Parliament wanted to permit the seizure of seditious libels before they were published, it would have to legislate to do so. Furthermore, if Parliament wanted to authorise state officials to commit torts, it would have to do so in clear terms. This too is a clear forerunner of what we now call the principle of legality – that if Parliament wishes to legislate to interfere with fundamental rights, it must make itself crystal clear, so that Parliamentarians understand what they are voting for and are prepared to take the political risk in doing so.
An example is the very first case to be heard in the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, Ahmed v Her Majesty’s Treasury,16 where we held that the very generally worded power in the United Nations Act 1946, to make Orders in Council in order to comply with our obligations under the United Nations Charter, did not entitle the government to over-ride fundamental rights and thus to make provision for freezing the assets of suspected terrorists without due process of law.
Entick v Carrington, as it seems to me, provides the link between the first great idea in Magna Carta and the present day. There is the appeal to the ‘ancient constitution’, the common law which would be found in the ‘books’ if it existed. There is the recognition that governmental power must not only be exercised in accordance with the law, but that the object of the law is to avoid the arbitrary and capricious use of power, and that there must be proper judicial safeguards for that purpose. All of these principles are with us to this day. They are enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights and explain why so many of its guarantees are as much concerned with process as they are with outcomes.17 But we should not forget that these principles are also enshrined in the common law.
That brings me to the second great idea which we can trace back to Magna Carta. In what became chapter 29 the King promised not to violate the rights of free men except by the lawful judgment of his peers or the law of the land. But what was the law of the land? At that stage, it could only have been ancient custom and practice, which developed into the common law, and perhaps the decrees of the King. It is interesting to compare the two great medieval treatises on The Laws and Customs of England. Glanvill, writing in about 1190, before Magna Carta, included the statement that ‘what please the Prince has force of law’; but Bracton, writing in about 1230, left this out, saying that ‘whatever has been rightly decided and approved with counsel and consent of the magnates and general agreement of the community, with the authority of the king or prince first added hereto, has the force of law’. As he explained, ‘the King ought not to be subject to man, but subject to God and the Law’.
In the original Magna Carta, the King had also promised not to levy taxes without consent, save in a very limited number of customary circumstances. The body which was there contemplated as giving that consent was the Great Council of the realm, summoned in accordance with Chapter 14, a clear forerunner of today’s House of Lords. The earliest use of the word ‘Parliament’ to refer to the Great Council was in 1236. But another anniversary which we are celebrating this year is the 750th anniversary of Simon de Montfort’s second Parliament in 1265.
Parliament is holding a Festival of Freedoms to commemorate what is often thought of as the first real Parliament. The practice of summoning two ‘knights of the shires’ from each county in England had already begun. De Montfort added to this by summoning two burgesses from the boroughs. This became the invariable practice from 1327. Thus the House of Commons took the shape which it retained until the great Reform Act of 1832 took the first faltering steps towards universal suffrage, a process which was only completed in 1928, when we became a real democracy.
No doubt many Kings would have done without Parliament if they could. But the reality was that they needed Parliament’s consent if they were to be able to raise the taxes they needed to wage their wars. Not only that, by the mid 15th century, Sir John Fortescue, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, in his treatise In Praise of the Laws of England, could say that ‘The King of England cannot alter nor change the laws of his realm at his pleasure. . . . he can neither change Lawes without the consent of his subjects, nor yet charge them with strange impositions against their wils’.
Of course, it took the upheavals of the 17th century, culminating in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, for it to be finally established that ‘levying money for or to the use of the Crown by pretence of prerogative without grant of Parliament . . . is illegal’. Just as it takes clear words to empower the executive to interfere with fundamental rights, it takes clear words to empower the executive to levy charges. As every Law student knows, a power to regulate the sale of milk by issuing licences to buy it does not include a power to charge the purchaser 2d a gallon for the privilege.
Indeed, levying taxes and authorising the government to spend the proceeds is the one area of control of the economy over which Parliament does have some oversight. As Tony Prosser has shown, there are many other ways in which the economy is regulated these days, through the money supply, interest rates, various regulatory bodies, government procurement, and so on, over which Parliament has little or no control.20 Indeed, it may be that in today’s world, Parliamentary control of taxation and expenditure is less than wholly effective. But at least the principle first established in Magna Carta is maintained.
The Glorious Revolution also finally established that the King could not suspend or dispense with the law, and that only the King in Parliament could make new laws. That does, of course, mean that Parliament can take away our rights, or limit our freedoms, as the court acknowledged in Entick v Carrington. A striking example is the Security Service Act 1996, which gave the Security Service the new function of supporting the police in the prevention and detection of crime.
The Secretary of State was thus empowered to grant warrants, on the application of the Security Service, authorising them to enter private property, to interfere with it, and to bug it, in pursuit of this new function, all without judicial control. Hence the Security Service, acting in a policing role, has greater powers than the police do. This was in the days when Law Lords were Members of the House of Lords and entitled to take part in its Parliamentary business. Lord Browne Wilkinson was scathing:
‘What has never happened in police matters hitherto, since Entick v Carrington, is proposed in this Bill almost by accident; that is to say, an executive warrant enabling entry into English property; the burgling and bugging of it, under executive warrant, which is the very thing which has been fought by the law and all interested in liberty, for many hundreds of years.’
That is why, in most other countries in the world, there is a superior law, a Constitution or a Bill or Charter of Rights, which limits the powers of the legislature to pass laws which infringe such fundamental rights. Indeed, at the Commonwealth Magistrates and Judges conference recently, after I had explained that the Human Rights Act did not allow the courts to strike down Acts of Parliament which were incompatible with fundamental rights, a delegate clearly could not understand how Parliament could be permitted to pass an Act which was unconstitutional. But that has always been the position and I doubt very much whether most of us, brought up on the doctrine that ‘Parliament can make or unmake any law’, would want it any different.
However, we are beginning to recognise that not all Acts of Parliament are equal. Some of them may have a special constitutional status, which means that they cannot be impliedly repealed or amended by a later Act of Parliament. Once again, clear words would be needed to bring about such a constitutional change. Thus, in the ‘Metric Martyrs’ case, section 1 of the Weights and Measures Act 1985, an ordinary Act of Parliament, which permitted the continued use of imperial weights and measures, could not be taken to have impliedly repealed section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972, which recognised the supremacy of community law by empowering the use of subordinate legislation to comply with a European Directive requiring the primary use of metric measures.23 Among the ‘constitutional’ statutes listed was Magna Carta. On the other hand, the European Communities Act could not be taken to have authorised the courts to disobey article 9 of the Bill of Rights, that ‘freedom of speech and debate or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or called in question in any court or place out of Parliament’, so as to permit the court to investigate whether the Parliamentary scrutiny to be given to the bills authorising HS2 was sufficient to comply with the Environmental Impact Directive. In both of those cases, Magna Carta was, of course, listed among the examples of such constitutional statutes. The reverse, however, is not so far the case: there is no such thing as an unconstitutional statute.
The sovereignty of Parliament should, of course, place a heavy burden on Parliament to legislate with great care when fundamental rights are at stake. In this country, we can place some reliance on what Dominic Grieve has called ‘an entirely distinctive national narrative, embodying the Common Law; its confirmation through Magna Carta and its numerous reissues in the Middle Ages, the outcome of the conflict of authority between King and Parliament in the 17th century, in the Petition of Right, the abolition of the Star Chamber and the prohibition of torture; habeas corpus and the Bill of Rights of 1689, Lord Mansfield’s ruling on slavery in Somerset’s case and the Commentaries of William Blackstone.’
He goes on to suggest that ‘This national narrative has been so powerful that it has acted as an almost mythic restraint on successive British governments trying to curb freedoms when tempted to do so by threats to public order or national security . . . ’ This brings me to the third great idea which we can trace back before Magna Carta, the idea which we now call the Rule of Law. In fact, as Lord Bingham has shown, that embraces several ideas. But its essence lies in two principles. The first is that everyone is subject to the law, the governors as well as the governed. Then, the King and his officers had to act within the limits of what the law allowed. Now, the government and all other public bodies have to act within the limits of what the law allows. It is the job of the higher courts to ensure that they do. For most of the time, this means that the court is acting as the servant of Parliament. Most public bodies, being creatures of statute, derive their powers from Acts of Parliament or subordinate legislation. The role of the court is, not to exercise those powers for them, but to ensure that they are exercised in accordance with the law, not outside the limits of what their powers allow, in a fair and proper manner and not without reason. Sometimes, of course, the executive’s power derives from other sources, most notably the royal prerogative. But since Magna Carta there have been limits to the royal prerogative and it is now the role of the higher courts to ensure that government stays within those limits.
In this connection, I cannot resist mentioning the case of the Chagos islanders, because it is a case in which Magna Carta itself might have made a difference. When, in the 1960s, the British decided to lease Diego Garcia, the largest island in the Chagos archipelago, to the United States as a military base, it was also decided to remove all the islanders. This was done with a ‘callous disregard’ for the islanders’ interests. A new colony was created and its Commissioner given power to make laws for the ‘peace, order and good government’ of the colony. This was done under the royal prerogative to legislate for the colonies by Order in Council without Parliamentary approval. The Commissioner used his power to ban anyone from entering or remaining on the islands without permission. Years later, in 2001, Mr Bancoult successfully challenged the Commissioner’s Order as outside his legislative powers. At first, the government accepted this.
But in 2004, for reasons that are still obscure and controversial, they changed their minds and decided to reinstate the ban. This time they did it, not by giving legislative power to the Commissioner, but by enacting a new Constitution by Order in Council which itself prohibited entry except in accordance with a new Immigration Order. Mr Bancoult brought a second set of proceedings to quash the new Orders. He succeeded in the High Court and Court of Appeal, but failed in the House of Lords, by a majority of three to two.
Among the many arguments deployed on behalf of the islanders was one based on chapter 29 of Magna Carta: ‘No freeman shall be . . . exiled . . . but by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land’. It was accepted that Parliament might pass a law exiling a person from his homeland, but it was argued that an Order in Council in the exercise of the royal prerogative could not do so. Three of the Law Lords disposed of this argument by holding that the Orders were ‘the law of the land’ for the purpose of chapter 29. Two of the Law Lords held that there had never been a prerogative power to exile a population from its homeland. Magna Carta, and the later development of its principles by Blackstone and Lord Mansfield, lay at the heart of their reasoning.
But there is another aspect to the rule of law, which can also be derived from Magna Carta’s most famous guarantee: ‘we will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man right or justice’. In modern terms, everyone has the right to access to justice: access to justice to defend themselves against the accusation that they have committed a criminal offence or should be subjected to some other form of penalty; access to justice to defend themselves against a civil claim; access to justice to assert a civil claim or to vindicate a right. It is a core function of the modern state to provide such access. Indeed, it has been argued that access to justice is even more important than access to other public services:
‘Just as the modern State tries to protect the poorer classes against the common dangers of life, such as unemployment, disease, old age, social oppression, etc, so it should protect them when legal difficulties arise. Indeed the case for such protection is stronger than the case for any other form of protection. The State is not responsible for the outbreak of epidemics, for old age or economic crises. But the State is responsible for the law.’
Those words were written in the context of access to lawyers but access to justice is even more fundamental than that. In a speech to the Commonwealth Magistrates and Judges’ Association, the Lord Chief Justice has recently commented that government and Parliament may not fully understand how important access to justice is to the maintenance of the rule of law. It is therefore the role of leadership judges to engage with them both, and with the public, to try and explain. So here is my simple attempt to do so.
The importance of affording a fair trial to persons accused of crime is not always obvious. All too often, our trial processes seem to the great British public to result in the acquittal of the guilty. We do, of course, have an obligation to make such processes fair to the alleged victims as well as to the alleged perpetrators. But, as it seems to me, a large part of the importance of a fair criminal process is to reassure the law-abiding: if we obey the law, we shall not be punished. If there is a risk of arbitrary and unjust punishment, what incentive is there to obey the law? In this connection, therefore, it is important to scrutinise any incentive to persons accused of crime to admit their guilt to police officers, or to plead guilty in court, in order to ensure that they do not place improper or unfair pressure on the innocent. An example is the recently introduced criminal court charge, levied on those who are convicted after having pleaded not guilty. I make no comment on whether this is, or is not, improper or unfair. My point is only that such pressures to plead guilty have always been rightly treated with suspicion in our common law world.
The importance of ensuring that people who have civil claims can also have access to justice to enforce or vindicate them is also not always obvious. Sometimes we in the justice system have only ourselves to blame. In my own world of family law, we have been so keen to encourage separating parents or spouses to settle things between themselves, that we may have neglected those who cannot, or cannot reasonably be expected to, do so. It is all very well to promote family mediation (as President of National Family Mediation I am naturally a supporter). Fighting in court is financially and emotionally exhausting and unlikely to promote the constructive relationships which are vital to successful parenting in future. But mediation can only work fairly and properly if it is backed up by the knowledge on both sides that a fair and just system of adjudication will be available if it fails. Otherwise the bully will always win. Where the family justice system led, the civil justice system soon followed. Fighting in court is to be avoided if at all possible. Alternative dispute resolution processes are to be encouraged. Once again, however, these can only work fairly and properly if they are backed up by the knowledge on both sides that a system of adjudication will be available if they fail. Not only that, people and businesses need to know, on the one hand, that they will be able to enforce their debts and their civil claims if they have to do so, and, on the other hand, that if they fail to meet their obligations, there is likely to be a remedy against them. It is that knowledge which keeps the world of business and commerce going. It is that knowledge which makes every-day economic and social relations possible. Once again, therefore, steps which look as if they may impede such access have to be scrutinised with care.
For example, we can argue about whether or not it should be unlawful to sack a woman just because she is pregnant. But for as long as we have such a law, she has to have a realistic possibility of bringing a claim if the law is broken. It cannot be right effectively to subvert such a law by making it practically impossible to assert the rights which it gives her. Once again, I make no comment on whether the levels at which court and tribunal fees are now set is an unfair deterrent to those who quite properly seek access to justice to vindicate their claims. The point is that, if Magna Carta is to mean anything today, right or justice must not be unfairly denied to anyone.
I cannot resist adding that, as well as being the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the 250th anniversary of Entick v Carrington, and the 750th anniversary of the de Montfort Parliament, this is also the 15th anniversary of the coming into force of the Human Rights Act, which has reinforced the great ideas of Magna Carta in many ways, and we all hope and expect that those great ideas will be at the forefront of any proposals for reform. So, I ask again, did that brave Hungarian peasant girl die in vain? I think not. The pledges which she made King John ‘sign’ remain the basic principles of our Constitution today. But we all have to be alert to maintain those principles in the face of the very different risks and complexities of the modern world.
August 3, 2015
Magna Carta Barons found Not Guilty of Treason
Friday 31st July, 2015
The UK Supreme Court.
Three of the world’s top judges this evening found representatives of the Magna Carta barons not guilty of treason, in a special event organised by the UK Supreme Court and the Magna Carta 800th Anniversary Commemoration Committee.
The Mock Trial saw two senior barristers debating whether King John’s actions in the run-up to 1215 justified the terms the barons forced him to agree in the form of Magna Carta, and the extent to which rebellion against the King can be acceptable in the eyes of the law.
The event was witnessed by 800 people in the surroundings of Westminster Hall, in the Palace of Westminster.
The three judges – Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, Justice Stephen Breyer of the US Supreme Court, and Dame Sian Elias, Chief Justice of New Zealand – left the stage to confer after hearing argument from James Eadie QC for the prosecution and Nathalie Lieven QC for the defence.
Historic witnesses including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton (played by Lord Lisvane) and intermediary William Marshal (played by Lord Judge) also assisted the court with evidence.
Historians suggest there are three types of treason: lèse-majesté, unjustified threatening the King’s life or the betrayal of the realm or the army; proditio, unjustified default of duty which injured the King or any unjustified plotting against the King; and infidelitas, unjustified violation of an oath of fidelity to the King.
Lord Neuberger concluded two concurring judgments by Justice Breyer and Dame Sian sparing the barons from a terrible fate. He said: “In relation to each type of treason, it is necessary to show that the action complained of was ‘unjustified’. For the reasons given so eloquently and clearly by my two colleagues, I would hold that, in all the circumstances, the prosecution has failed to show that the defendants’ actions were unjustified. Accordingly, I, too, would acquit Baron Fitzwalter and the other 24 defendants of the charge of the treason.”
Commenting on the decision, Sir Robert Worcester, Chairman of the Magna Carta Anniversary Committee, said: “This decision was far from inevitable, but just goes to show how the bravery and determination of those barons eight hundred years ago rings down the centuries as a justified act of rebellion. Those of us living today in democracies which take the Rule of Law seriously are reaping the benefits of the barons’ bold demonstration against King John.
“This was a thrilling event and I am so pleased that the judges have vindicated the men who took considerable risks to secure freedoms we still enjoy today.”
Professor David Carpenter, who played Baron FitzWalter and served as a historical advisor for the event, said: “It was a close run thing. We saw two excellent advocates pitted against each other over a series of fundamental questions which still have resonance today. I agree that the barons should have treated John with more respect. Had they not humiliated him after Runnymede, the country might have been spared the subsequent civil war. On the other hand, I think the verdict broadly supporting Magna Carta is absolutely right. It would have been right then and it is right now.”
Clive Anderson, who played King John, said: “I am sure King John would have been astonished and possibly enraged by this verdict, and would be considering what further steps he could take to deal with the Judges and the Barons who defied his authority”.
A video of the proceedings will be freely available to view on the UK Supreme Court website from early next week.
This project was funded by the 800th Committee. Click here to find out more.
July 29, 2015
John Major: Inaugural Edward Heath Lecture
‘Inaugural Edward Heath Lecture’, The Guildhall, Salisbury. Wednesday 17th June 2015. The Rt Hon. Sir John Major KG CH, Speaker.
It is a great pleasure to be here this evening in this magnificent Guildhall, to deliver the first Edward Heath Lecture.
Nearby, in the Cathedral Close in Salisbury, is Arundells; the first home that Ted Heath could truly call his own. Ted spent his last two decades living there and it was evident to everyone who knew him how profoundly he loved the house, with its subtle architectural balance, tranquil gardens and stunning view of our greatest Gothic cathedral. It appealed to the inner artist in Ted – and it never lost that appeal.
Next year, Ted would have been a hundred years old. I think he would have been delighted that funds are to be raised – not just for the historic delights of Arundells – but for discussion of international affairs, education and the arts. Ted knew that a rounded life extended far beyond domestic politics, and his own life reflected that understanding: it is a privilege to deliver this inaugural Lecture and Ted would, I think, have approved of the subject.
But – first – if one delivers a Memorial Lecture to Edward Heath, one cannot ignore his great achievement of taking Britain into Europe. This is not the occasion for detailed arguments about the merits and de merits of the present-day European Union: that must await a later occasion when I, for one, will argue that we are far better off working with our partners than in splendid isolation.
But Ted was born during a war that began in Europe, and served through a later one, both of which engulfed the world. It was imprinted on his mind – and that of his contemporaries – that working with our European neighbours would prevent conflict with them: in this, Ted was surely right. It was a view he held to – sometimes in the face of vituperative criticism – for the rest of his life.
And he saw, too, that only a Europe that worked together could ever look the giants of America and China in the eye – as equals. In this, too, he was right.
Our history might cry out that we can survive alone – and I have no doubt we can: but logic suggests we are more likely to thrive in partnership. This, too, Ted understood.
* * * * *
My interest in Magna Carta – the Great Charter – goes back a long way.
As a boy, of course, I was taught about it in that long-ago time when learning about our history was thought to be essential to an education.
Many years later, I came across Magna Carta in a much more personal way. I was in my early thirties, and a young Banker with Standard Chartered. It was 1975 and – because the Bank had interests in California – they wished to contribute in some way to the American bicentenary celebrations the following year.
The then Chairman, Tony Barber – Chancellor of the Exchequer in Ted Heath’s Government – invited me into his inner sanctum one evening, poured a generous drink, and began tossing around ideas of what we might do. Out of that discussion came the notion of borrowing a copy of Magna Carta to display in our branches across California. Whether that was my idea, or the Chairman’s, is lost in the mists of time – or in the afterglow of his generous hospitality – but I was duly tasked with exploring possibilities.
I soon learned there were four remaining copies of Magna Carta: two at the British Library, and one at both Salisbury and Lincoln Cathedrals. The Chairman decided to approach the Dean of Lincoln, the Very Reverend Oliver Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes and, upon doing so, we learned that God and Mammon had a far closer relationship than we had imagined: when he heard of the Bank’s interest, the Dean welcomed the money changers into the Temple – or, at any rate, the Cathedral.
Although the Dean was fiercely protective of the Charter, after much to-ing and fro-ing he finally agreed that Lincoln’s Magna Carta could be flown to California – but with conditions. The precious document was to be housed in a fire-proof, water-proof, bomb-proof, bullet-proof, humidity-controlled exhibition box costing £12,000 – over £100,000 in today’s money – and transported in a Vulcan aircraft from RAF Waddington. A second Vulcan was to follow close behind so that – if the first one crashed – we would know where the Magna Carta lay. Thus – even if it rested beneath the waves for decades – the Charter would still be intact when it was rediscovered.
There were some memorable vignettes.
I was told – and I do wish I had seen it – that the box was attacked with flame throwers, flood water and rifle fire to test its protective qualities. As for insurance – no-one was sure of its value – for how can you put a price on such a document?
The Dean knew how. He looked around the Cathedral, at its historic majesty, and speculated aloud about how much it cost to protect and repair its ancient fabric.
We insured Magna Carta for that sum – in the millions – which led Tony Barber to ponder whether the Dean and Chapter might actually be praying secretly for us to lose it.
Inevitably, there were hiccups. The Dean was set to fly to California, and the Bank’s travel section duly booked first-class tickets for Messrs Twistleton, Wykeham, and Fiennes. Fortunately, this was noticed ….
Although I was originally due to accompany the Magna Carta to California, the Chairman decided he needed me to travel with him instead – to an IMF Conference in Manila. So I parted company with the project. It was, however, a huge success, and the Great Charter was returned safely to Lincoln – together with Twistleton, Wykeham and Fiennes ….
Magna Carta, although undeniably English at birth, has become an essential component in the laws of English-speaking nations around the world. In the UK, it underpins our system of law, and was an inspiration to the Chartists and the Suffragettes as they sought the right to vote. In America, its influence is evident in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. So it is instructive to examine its origins.
In 1215, the Plantagenet King John was on the throne. His father, Henry II – arguably our greatest King – inherited a Kingdom exhausted by war and anarchy, and initiated a judicial system that evolved into our common law. John’s elder brother, Richard the Lionheart, was a leader of the crusades, and is immortalised outside the House of Lords on horseback, with sword raised aloft. Richard is the quintessential English hero, which is odd, since he was French and spoke little or no English. He spent less than one year of his reign in the country he ruled for ten – but a ransom to save him from prison did nearly bankrupt it.
I digress for a moment to note that St George – he who slayed the dragons and freed maidens – was a Syrian. He, too, spoke no English – and never visited our country. Nor did he slay dragons or free maidens. Of such virtues are English heroes made!
Let me revert to Magna Carta.
On his brother Richard’s death, John became King. Contemporary chronicles pre-date history’s verdict that he was a very bad King indeed. One wrote that “hell itself is defiled by the foulness of John.” Others were less kind. Many expressed sentiments that made today’s tabloid press seem positively tame.
By 1215, John had been on the throne for 16 years. Vicious, lecherous, arbitrary in dispensing justice, untruthful and greedy, he had done little to endear himself to his subjects.
In particular, John’s relationship with his unruly Barons had deteriorated to the point of civil war. This was no accident. He had over-taxed them to fund a war with France that he lost ignominiously. He had a propensity for – I put this delicately – the wives and daughters of the Barons. Angry and rebellious, the Barons demanded the restoration of “ancient liberties” – as enshrined in a Charter of Henry I, one hundred years earlier. But John had no intention of appeasing the Barons, and when he met them in early 1215, he rejected their appeals, and demanded even greater allegiance.
It was a foolhardy gesture and the Barons reacted with force. In May 1215, they captured London and compelled John to meet them again – this time at Runnymede, midway between the King’s army at Windsor and the Barons’ men at Staines. After several meetings – and what today we would call “a free and frank exchange of views”– an embryo Charter was drawn up: “The Articles of the Barons”.
On 15 June a binding agreement was reached: the King would issue what became known as Magna Carta and, in return, the Barons would swear fealty to him. Magna Carta was not signed – there is no evidence John could write – but the 4,000 word document, written on sheepskin parchment in Medieval Latin, was duly stamped with the King’s Seal. Copies were made by monks in the Royal Chancellery, and despatched for public proclamation to towns and cities across England. Magna Carta was born.
What did the Great Charter say? The first thing to understand is that it was a contemporary document drafted for the wellbeing of the Barons. It was time, common practice, subsequent events and re-interpretation of the text by great lawyers that elevated the Charter to its unique status.
The original Charter had 63 clauses, or chapters – many of them trivial. But the two great Chapters were Numbers 39 and 40. They are central to the enduring fame and eternal relevance of Magna Carta today.
“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.”
In other words – the Barons told the King – don’t think you can act arbitrarily against us.
“To no-one will we sell, to no-one deny or delay right or justice.”
This is a fundamental principle of our law. No-one can be sure who drafted it, but it seems likely that the guiding hand may have been Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury. If so, this would have infuriated the King since – in modern parlance, the Archbishop and the King had “previous”.
A decade earlier, when Archbishop Hubert Walter had died, King John had nominated his own candidate, only to find him opposed by a faction in the Church. The Pope, Innocent III, intervened and Langton was consecrated Archbishop without John’s approval. It did not make for a good relationship.
John accepted the Charter under duress and, no doubt, with ill grace. But within weeks, he saw his opportunity to destroy it.
Chapter 61 proposed a Committee of twenty five Barons to enforce Magna Carta, and hold the King to his word. This was anathema to an hereditary Monarch who believed he was above the law. More important, it was anathema to an autocratic Pope who saw here a principle that could threaten his own authority.
When John appealed to him, Pope Innocent quashed Magna Carta in a Papal Bull. It was, he announced, “unjust, shameful – and illegal”. In the Catholic England of 1215, the Pope’s writ was all powerful . But while John rejoiced, the Barons prepared for civil war.
This time, they were serious. They no longer sought concessions. Their plan was to depose John and offer the Crown to Prince Louis of France who – while John was fighting the Barons in the North – had invaded with 7,000 troops . A bloody conflict seemed inevitable when John, at last, did something that would save Magna Carta for posterity: he died at Newark Castle.
John was succeeded by his infant son, nine-year-old Henry, and William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, became Regent. William Marshall was a genuine hero of the age – and pre-eminent in reputation among the Barons. He re-issued Magna Carta in Henry’s name – but without the contentious Chapter 61 that had so upset the Pope.
Most Barons accepted this – and those that did not were swiftly defeated at the Battle of Lincoln Fair. Louis fled to France, and Magna Carta became more deeply embedded in both the law and folklore of the English.
In 1225, when Henry III was old enough to assume power without a Regent, Magna Carta was re-issued again – in the form we recognise today and in an abbreviated 37 Chapters – but with one key difference.
This definitive text had Henry III’s “full and free consent”. Its acceptance placed the King himself under the law.
It was a good principle, but could only become reality if there were a body in place to enforce it and, three decades later, an embryo Parliament lifted the veil on what that body would ultimately be. However, true Parliamentary control of the Monarchy was still far off.
“Words mean”, said Humpty Dumpty to Alice, “just what I choose them to mean”. That is relevant to Magna Carta because it was the interpretation of the Charter that made it so powerful. The “free men” in King John’s Charter were freeholders of land, not the free and independent men and women of later ages.
As the late Law Lord, Tom Bingham put it: “the significance of Magna Carta lay, not only in what it actually said, but in what later generations claimed and believed it had said.”
Throughout the 14th and 16th Centuries, Magna Carta slumbered. Henry VIII ignored it completely when he made himself Head of the English Church.
But it was re-awoken in the early 17th Century, when Stuart Kings clashed with Parliament. When James VI of Scotland succeeded Queen Elizabeth I as James I of England, he held the view that “Monarchy is the supremest thing on earth … Kings exercise a manner of divine power on Earth”.
This was neither the first – nor the last – time that a Scottish leader expressed views that were alien to the English, and the great lawyer, Sir Edward Coke, was soon in conflict with James – who dismissed him as a Law Officer. Undeterred, Coke entered Parliament and, in 1628, infuriated James’s successor, Charles I, by invoking Magna Carta to bridle the power of the King. “Magna Carta owns no Sovereign” Coke argued, in provocatively chosen language, as he urged the supremacy of Common Law over the Royal Prerogative.
The stage was set for political confrontation. For some years, Charles attempted to rule without Parliament, but ran out of money. When he recalled Parliament – to raise funds to fight the Scots – Parliament refused to comply until the King reaffirmed Magna Carta and the Petition of Right. The stand-off deteriorated into a Civil War, begun by Charles but won by the Parliamentary Forces under Cromwell. It was followed by the trial and execution of the King.
Nearly forty years later, another Stuart King, James II, was deposed in the bloodless coup of the Glorious Revolution, and William and Mary of Orange were offered the throne – but with conditions. They were required to affirm a Bill of Rights that granted far greater power to Parliament.
This was the effective beginning of a constitutional Monarchy, and the end of absolute rule. From that moment, Parliament was supreme. And the justification cited was Magna Carta. It would be nice to believe that Stephen Langton foresaw this triumph 470 years earlier – but, sadly, I doubt it.
Although Magna Carta was undeniably English by birth, its principles travelled the length and breadth of the English-speaking world – to India, Canada, New Zealand, Australia – and, of course, that great democracy – the United States.
When the first Colony was established in Virginia in 1606, James I granted the new settlers the same rights as were available in England, and the colonists embraced these liberties in their own domestic laws. In 1638, Maryland passed a Bill to recognise Magna Carta as part of the law of the Province.
Three years later, Massachusetts framed their “Bill of Liberties” in “resemblance to Magna Carta”. In 1668, the Carolinas legislated to regulate the grants of land in a Bill they characterised as “a species of Magna Carta”.
Thus, over a hundred years before the Declaration of Independence (1776), the colonial Legislatures had firmly embedded the principles of Magna Carta into American law.
These principles were enhanced after Independence. The Federal Constitution of 1789 embodied declarations on the rights of men that were variants of English law. As Lord Bryce observed a hundred years later: “there is little in the Constitution that is absolutely new. There is much that is as old as Magna Carta.” That holds true today.
As you enter the bronze doors of the US Supreme Court, you will see a depiction of King John signing Magna Carta; and, in the courtroom itself, a marble frieze commemorating the great lawmakers, where John is shown hugging Magna Carta, in the company of Napoleon and Justinian.
The men who drafted the US Bill of Rights deliberately echoed the language of Magna Carta. In 2003, Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman ever to serve as a US Supreme Court Justice, paid tribute to its lasting influence – noting that:
“In the last forty years the Court has cited Magna Carta in more than fifty written opinions. It has looked to concepts embodied in Magna Carta in important decisions that concern, for example, the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, the requirement that trial by jury be afforded in state criminal prosecutions, and the access of indigents to review of criminal convictions.”
* * * * *
How relevant is the Magna Carta today? It is rarely cited in legal action, although its derived law remains potent. And there are areas where its absence is striking and its writ has not run: extraordinary rendition, for example, and detention without trial in Guantanamo Bay. American courts ruled that normal circumstances could not apply in wartime – a contentious decision that many would question – myself included. Whatever crimes these prisoners may have committed, they deserve to be brought to trial and, if found guilty, punished: but to be imprisoned without trial cannot be acceptable.
Many, too, might be concerned at the modern level of surveillance which has grown dramatically to counter terrorist threats unforeseen by earlier generations. Much is justified by legitimate security concerns, but it is a trend that Parliaments should watch with care.
But I would argue that the Charter’s impact today goes far beyond the law. It can be seen in the attitudes and expectations of the English-speaking nations.
This evening, my focus is the UK and the US. As children of Magna Carta, we instinctively dislike over-mighty power – not least in our Governments. I lost an election in 1997 for many reasons, but one – repeatedly cited – is that we had been in Government for too long and the UK wasn’t a one-Party State. I agree with the sentiment – although I would have preferred for its implementation to have been deferred. Our two nations are suspicious of monopoly power. We have an affinity for the under-dog, for the plucky loser. Magna Carta is in our DNA – it is who we are.
And our expectations show a symbiotic relationship with the Charter. We require and expect our Laws to be fair. Our Courts to be impartial. We take for granted that we can mock and criticise the mightiest in the land without fear of reprisal. We believe we have ancient rights – freedom of speech, the right to own and pass on our assets, protection against the State. We assume all this as an ancient right, whilst acknowledging that such liberties are still not available in many other parts of the world.
Alexander the Great believed that Asians became slaves because they could not pronounce the word “No”. But we can and do: to Monarchs; to Presidents; to Governments; to Jacks-in-Office; to hostile armies – and so have we throughout our history.
Of course, the UK and US are not identical. Let me speak for a moment of my own country. As a nation we British are understated – until roused by threats or injustice – and we rarely speak of freedom, perhaps because we take it for granted.
Maybe we should speak of it more. Freedom – liberty – is essential to the individual if he is not to be crushed. It is enshrined in our every attitude. We know that – without the rule of law and free speech –despotism can reign. But, even in our own country which is, I believe, as free as any in the world, freedom is not universal. There is no freedom – no liberty of action – in poverty. There is little freedom in unemployment. They are both a blot on a free society and, if we do not seek to eliminate them, they become a blot on our conscience too.
And, on a lower level, we should beware lest independence and freedom is eaten away by pettifogging rules and too much control: we should look critically at regulation if we wish to ensure a free nation does not live in a Nanny State.
Are these sentiments due to Magna Carta? Or did Magna Carta come about because this is the unshakeable conviction of our people? We will never know the answer. But what I do know is that we should be proud we gave our laws and our concept of freedom to a large part of the world – and prouder still that they have adopted it.
These days I travel widely to every corner of the world. Many might be surprised at the respect and affection there is for our country based on our language, our democracy, our system of law and the perception that we are a fair and tolerant nation.
There is one current controversy which has faint echoes of the principal dispute over Magna Carta. That dispute – as I have set out – was between absolute Monarchy and Parliamentary supremacy. Today’s more minor dispute is between British Law and the rulings of the ECHR. It is a much misunderstood issue.
There is a strand of opinion in the UK that disowns logic and abandons consensus once the words “European Union” are mentioned: it is as though a red mist has descended, robbing intelligent minds of the ancient British genius for compromise.
So let me make clear that the ECHR has absolutely nothing to do with the European Union. This Court was established by a Convention on Human Rights, agreed in 1950, the drafting of which was guided by a Conservative lawyer and politician. Yet, I think it fair to say that, over recent years, the rulings of this Court have widened to an extent that has often upset Parliament, politicians, press and public in equal measure.
The Convention was designed to protect civil and political liberties, at a time when wartime violations were fresh in the memory and Communism – with its disregard for individual freedom – was a growing threat across much of Europe. It was signed by 47 European nations and reflected the terms of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – itself described by Eleanor Roosevelt as a “Magna Carta for all mankind”.
The Convention was drafted in broad terms to cover such issues as the right to life and liberty; to fair trial; to freedom of expression; to the end of torture – and many rights long familiar to our own way of life. It was incorporated into British Law in the Human Rights Act agreed by Parliament in 1998.
The Government wishes to replace the Human Rights Act with a “British Bill of Rights” that would replicate all the safeguards of the Convention, but leave its interpretation in the hands of British Courts. As a result, a clamour has arisen that the intention is to infringe existing human rights. If I thought that were so, I would be a strong opponent of the change. But it is not.
Human rights and liberties were protected in this country long before the Human Rights Act, and I have no doubt that will remain the position when the legislation is updated. The land that gave us Magna Carta will not turn its back on fundamental liberties. And the land that gave us a democratic Parliament is surely right to ensure that the will of Parliament is not misinterpreted.
The ECHR is a symbol; a potent symbol of the post-war settlement in Europe. In the world of politics, such symbols matter and we respect their power and significance. I expect consultation and compromise to settle this issue.
Let me give the final word to an Englishman, among the greatest we have known, born of an American mother.
Sir Winston Churchill wrote of Magna Carta:
“The underlying idea of the sovereignty of law, long existent in feudal custom, was raised by it into a doctrine for the national State. And when in subsequent ages the State, swollen with its own authority, has attempted to ride roughshod over the rights or liberties of the subject, it is to this doctrine that appeal has again and again been made, and never, as yet, without success.”
Ted Heath began his career as a Whip in Churchill’s last Government. He would have agreed with Churchill’s analysis. He understood that Magna Carta framed our law, our Parliament, our history and our nature.
For that, Britain, America and much of the world can all be grateful.
June 7, 2015
Magna Carta: The troubled journey to an independent judiciary.
The Independent, Sunday 7th June.
Written by Will Gore.
Click here to read the article as it appeared on the independent.co.uk
In popular perception the Middle Ages was a time of lawlessness and cruelty. And to a degree, that characterisation holds true. Crusades abroad, ill-disciplined governance at home, England in the early thirteenth century was not exactly enlightened.
The creation of Magna Carta in 1215 is all the more remarkable against such a backdrop. An unpopular king brought to heel by a written agreement sounds much too good to be true – and it was, in the short-term, with peaceable discussions giving way to civil war within a matter of months.
Nevertheless, the legacy of the charter signed by King John and the barons at Runnymede 800 years ago has been compelling, both in this country and beyond. The original agreement may not have protected rights and freedoms in the detailed way which modern-day myth occasionally suggests, but it undoubtedly set Britain on a road towards non-autocratic government.
In particular, Magna Carta achieved acceptance for two key principles. The first was that regal authority should be limited by – and separated from – the will of the people. In the immediate context of the early 1200s, that meant that taxes could not be raised without the “general consent of the realm” – and for realm read barons and the church. Even so, as a guiding principle, it was crucial.
The second fundamental doctrine was that individuals were entitled to be treated in accordance with the laws of the land and would, when accused of wrongdoing, be judged by their equals. Again, the contemporary impact of this element of Magna Carta – the famed clause 39 – was limited to the minority of British citizens who were “free men”. However, it confirmed the notion of the Rule of Law and the applicability of trial by jury, which had seen its origins during Henry II’s rule in the previous century when the first judges emerged too.
Ultimately, then, Magna Carta was a bulwark against tyranny. For thirteenth century barons it was also a tool for the advance of oligarchy, a means of protecting their role as the advisors to the king – their positions as such having been established informally during the reign of William the Conqueror. Magna Carta certainly did not envisage genuine democratic rights as they are understood today.
It is the incremental reforms which have taken place in the last 800 years that are the hallmark of British government and governance (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images) It is the incremental reforms which have taken place in the last 800 years that are the hallmark of British government and governance (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images) Indeed, the continuing acceptance of a formalised and symbiotic relationship between the monarch and his (important) subjects was not without its hiccups – to put things mildly. And the development of regular parliaments in the mid- to late-thirteenth century (and especially their extension to include non-noble representatives) was largely the consequence of discord, rather than harmonious reform.
The security of parliament’s role – separated into two chambers from the mid-14th century – and the independence of the judiciary were largely dependent on the strength or weakness of successive monarchs. Henry VIII’s “great matter” and the subsequent break from Rome have been seen by many historians as the point at which parliamentary power took on a new character, although Tudor monarchs were canny enough to recognise that empowering parliament was a means to legitimising their own authority. Fundamentally, though, the monarch retained a firm grip on the power of the executive veto.
But if the Tudor period, rumbustious as it was, witnessed a new understanding of the need for balance in the relationship between executive, legislature and judiciary, so it was the dramatic failure of the Stuart kings to accept the limitations of their power which ultimately led to the more formal separation of the three arms of state.
The Star Chamber was originally conceived as a kind of supervisory body to oversee the operation of England’s lower courts and consider appeals, as well as to ensure enforcement of the law against those powerful enough to avoid the clutches of local judicial officials. Yet under James I, the Chamber effectively became the king’s private enforcement agency, meting out judgments on moral as well as legal matters. The court was used to suppress dissent and to bypass the necessity of calling parliaments.
The dismissal by James I of Edward Coke, the Chief Justice, for having suggested that the king was subject to the law, rather than the other way round, brought matters to a head. Incensed, Coke dedicated himself to writing The Institutes of the Lawes of England, which emphasised the role of Magna Carta as the basis for the common law and, notably, as having enshrined the independence of the judiciary from monarchical control. Coke subsequently drafted The Petition of Right, an updated Magna Carta, which parliament compelled the new king, Charles I, unhappily to accept. Charles responded by governing without parliament for 11 years and ramping up his persecution of those who opposed him. The English Civil War, which followed, ended with Charles’ execution, convicted by a jury of 120 officials of the highest rank available.
Coke’s assertion of Magna Carta’s formative place in English constitutional history, especially in confirming the independence of the judiciary, has been upheld with remarkable consistency throughout the last 350 years. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the subsequent passage of the Bill of Rights, followed a decade later by the Act of Settlement, finally – and for good – ended any pretensions that a monarch might have to absolute rule and cemented the separate functions of crown, parliament and courts.
In recent decades, constitutional changes have further reinforced the separation of state powers (even if the continued existence of the executive within the legislature raises theoretical difficulties). The last Labour government, for instance, ended the legal function of the House of Lords, transferring power to the Supreme Court as the UK’s highest legal authority, and provided for more independence in the appointment of judges.
Yet it is the great irony of Britain’s unwritten constitution that having arguably reached a point of greatest clarity, so it is up for renewed debate. The role of the European Convention on Human Rights, as legislated for by the Human Rights Act here; the existence of the Strasbourg court; clashes between ministers and judicial officials over their respective roles; and ongoing questions over House of Lords reform – not to mention the state of the Union between Scotland and England: all have become major talking points. Magna Carta, which was intended to resolve a specific set of contemporary problems in 1215, has come for many to represent a simpler, more English, representation of rights.
In the final analysis, however, it is the incremental reforms which have taken place in the last 800 years that are the hallmark of British government and governance. To ignore that is to disregard the struggles of those who have endeavoured to ensure respect for the Rule of Law and to maintain the delicate balance between the powers that rule our lives.
October 11, 2011
Where Would We Be Without Democracy
If there is any way to make us appreciate what we have, it is by envisaging what life would be like without it. This same concept can be applied to democracy. It is a thought provoking experience, to imagine your life without something you take for granted day by day. To aid you in that experience and to hopefully offer a new appreciation for the liberties we are granted today, here are some examples of how life would be different.
Without democracy, the demographic of Britain today would be entirely different. Some might argue that without documents such as the Magna Carta, or the English Civil War, democracy would have inevitably emerged as the dominant political form. This owes to movements such as the Enlightenment, which represented a drastic shift in philosophical thought. It was at the time of the Enlightenment, for example, that the French Revolution took place – the monarchy was disposed and many in Britain felt its influences would spread. However, consider if neither this change in philosophical thought nor such rebellions occurred – it is possible that the English Civil War might have never taken place.
If, for example, Oliver Cromwell had not led the parliament after the execution of King Charles I, we would not have the parliament we have today. It is worth extensive consideration; the stepping stones that lead to a state becoming democratic are precarious and can even seem coincidental.
It can start to look like a chain reaction. The events in France acted as an impetus for increasing political reform in England. Additionally, without this, the philosophical belief that underpinned the Declaration of Independence, born out of Enlightenment principles, may have never come to existence. In this vain it is even feasible to suggest that modern day American would not exist, but rather exist as colonial subjects to English monarchy.
Without this, then, we would still be subject to Monarchical law and judgement. It presents an odd image in the mind, and it is hard not to imagine the Black Adder depiction of Queen Elizabeth sitting in a 21st century context demanding the heads from her subjects.
Lastly, as democracy has become an intrinsic characteristic to capitalist society, we would be without our modern day luxuries. Forget your iPhone, if Britain had remained ruled by its monarchy then private business practice would have existed in a much smaller, diminutive form. Private entrepreneurship wouldn’t really have existed and today’s industries would have remained affiliated to state, rather than encouraging individuals to achieve their own power.