Saturday, 22 February 2014
What has Magna Carta to do with me?
Someone wrote to me the other week complaining about all the fuss being made about Magna Carta; surely there are more important things? It makes you wonder.
In 1213 it was a group of wealthy barons, not top of most people’s list for sympathy, who were crying ‘unfair’; the remainder of the population might well have been too, but no-one heard them, or bothered to write down what they said. The barons’ many complaints were legitimate; we would recoil at the thought of a widow being at the mercy of the king. The core of the complaint was as it so often has been over the centuries: money; the king needed it and the barons had it, and the king used, or rather abused his power to obtain it. Was King John then a uniquely bad king? Opinions differ, the issue was rather more what kingship meant and this is where Lincolnshire’s Archbishop Stephen Langton comes onto the stage.
It seems that Langton had thought long and hard about kingship. He had a huge resource to inform his thinking: the biblical book of Kings and a particular commentary on it which is still among the Cathedral medieval manuscripts. The ancient Jews had agonised for generations over whether or not to have a king and, if they had one, just how would he fit between them and God? The thinking set the ground rules and from the start the king was not an absolute ruler. Langton took this thinking and brought it into a debate with a family of kings who clearly saw their power as absolute. It is many years since monarchs saw their power as absolute, or is it?
21st century ‘monarchs’ tend not to be kings; most are individuals or groups who wield power given to them through a demographic process or taken by them through all kinds of violence. There others: organs of government, some of those who control the media and digital technologies, those who take massive risks in banking; the list goes on. The Magna Carta question is about the boundaries to be placed on their power. Power is a fact of life, but power must be exercised responsibly, fairly and within the rule of law.
Parliamentary democracy followed on quite quickly after Magna Carta with the De Montfort parliament in 1265, itself greatly influenced by another man of Lincolnshire Robert Grosseteste. It is and always has been Parliament that wrestles with the boundaries of power and all too often it is a complex and uneven fight. The whole question of surveillance is a very clear illustration.
So does Magna Carta matter? You bet is does. What child has never said, ‘it’s unfair’? How often is it truly unfair? How often do the powerful simply get away with it? Magna Carta is the weapon; society simply needs the bravery and determination of the barons to give it true voice.