Interpretations of Magna Carta varied extraordinarily over the weekend commemorations. A fine testament to its value.
In a backhanded sort of way, Lord Sumption paid Magna Carta a high compliment by describing it as a ‘turgid’ document and himself as a ‘sceptic’.
The Supreme Court justice kicked off a long weekend of events around the octocentenary by comparing the great charter unfavourably with the French Republic’s founding document the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen. The 1789 Déclaration ‘is the only one of these two documents that speaks to us in the 21st century,’ he told the Franco-British Lawyers’ Society.
It is hard to imagine one of Sumption’s French counterparts using a major anniversary of 1789 to announce scepticism about the Déclaration. But that’s the beauty of the 1215 document, along with so much else of the anachronistic, cobbled together, largely uncodified British constitution. It not only permits contempt, but almost encourages it. I’ve spent the past few days at octocentenary events spanning a spectrum from reverence to ridicule.
As you might expect, there wasn’t much ridicule on show at the American Bar Association, which took over the Grosvenor House Hotel in Park Lane for its London Sessions. The ABA takes Magna Carta very seriously indeed, as befits its role in the founding of the New England colonies and the Bill of Rights. It has marked the octocentenary not only by today’s rededication of the Runnymede Memorial, designed for it by Sir Edward Maufe in 1957, but by publishing a weighty volume of original academic writing, Magna Carta and the Rule of Law (ABA Publishing).
In the foreword, former justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, seems to have little truck with Lord Sumption’s interpretation. ‘At least until all people may be secure in the promise that no one is above the law and the government must be administered according to the law, Magna Carta will continue to have a role to play.’
Thence to the hipsterish London neighbourhood of Clerkenwell, where a bunch of organisations including the founders of the Little Atoms radio show mounted the Alternative Magna Carta Festival, ‘an afternoon of freedoms, literature, Britishness, arts, protest, digital rights and more’. A typical snapshot emerged in a session on Britishness, roast beef and beer, where a speaker proposed that the decline in British pubs and butchers’ shops could be blamed on a backlash against the values of the UK Independence Party.
A session on a topic more at the heart of Magna Carta - property rights - generated a livelier debate, including proposals to confiscate unproductive land (as apparently the Scottish government will propose in an upcoming bill). That fell a little flat when someone brought up the property rights protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights, which no one in Clerkenwell seemed in the mood to challenge. But there were also some willing to nail their colours to Magna Carta: land reform campaigner Kevin Cahill praised its brevity and transparency: ‘It’s probably the last great official document primarily about power that’s been made publicly available in the UK.’
Then on to Runnymede, inter Windleshor et Stanes, as the charter locates it, to mingle with a very different crowd at the unveiling of the first British monument to Magna Carta on the site. The fact that the monument is a bronze statue of the current monarch was explained as a tribute to Queen Elizabeth II’s approach to constitutional niceties and the contrast with that of her (extremely distant) ancestor.
John Bercow MP, speaker of the House of Commons did the honours, using his speech to criticise what he called the ‘alternative literature’ on the significance of the 1215 bargain. Such interpretations that Magna Carta was of no great significance 'should not blind us to the significance of the bargain that was struck 800 years ago'.
No doubt he had a certain Supreme Court justice in mind. But Lord Sumption’s speech is worth reading right through. It ends with the observation that: ‘The world of politics is divided into two camps. There are those who seek to found public institutions on moral principle. And there are those who regard public institutions as a mechanism for reconciling the competing interests and prejudices of humanity. The former undoubtedly has the more powerful emotional appeal. But the latter reflects a historical truth which has a habit of reasserting itself and is not easily ignored.’
Pedestrian, pettifogging Magna Carta has a habit of reasserting itself. Neither is it easily ignored.
The Law Society is celebrating the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta on Wednesday 17 June with several events. Details from the website
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor