Speech

Foreign Secretary speech at the Magna Carta's 800th anniversary dinner

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Foreign Secretary speech at the Magna Carta's 800th anniversary dinner.

Lord Dyson, thank you for your introduction earlier and Mark for the excellent dinner which I hope will fuel everyone through this brief interlude… until some pudding-shaped relief arrives in due course.

It is said that Winston Churchill once sent his pudding back to the chef with the complaint that it “had no theme”…

I hope my remarks do not fall into the same trap if only because, in the “Magna Carta”, we have a theme as rich as the finest of desserts.

As Foreign Secretary, I recognise the Magna Carta is a major part of Britain’s “brand”, as the home of democracy and the rule of law.

But it is, as someone has already remarked this evening, as a Member of Parliament for the constituency where it was sealed, that the Magna Carta has a particular claim on my attention. From time to time I find myself placed in the invidious position of being asked to name a favourite place in my constituency.

I can tell you this is not a question any MP would relish answering.

But I am readily able to nominate Runnymede: a special place for its historic significance but also because, despite its proximity to the M25 and to Heathrow, the meadow of Runnymede retains a surprising quality of tranquility & beauty.

And thanks to the vision and work of the American Bar Association, whose 800-strong delegation I look forward to welcoming there in the Summer, it houses a fitting memorial designed by Sir Edward Maufe to that landmark event which we remember tonight.

But the MP for Runnymede shouldn’t be allowed to monopolise the Parliamentary interest in the events of 1215. Any self-respecting Member of Parliament should be focussed on the significance of Magna Carta in the evolution of our Parliamentary democracy.

Indeed, shouldn’t any citizen in any democracy anywhere, at least have the opportunity to become familiar with the role Magna Carta has played in the evolution of democracy to the present day?

Creating these opportunities is what the Magna Carta 800th Anniversary Committee is doing so expertly. I’d like to highlight, in particular, the contribution of Sir Robert Worcester, over the twenty-one years he has been a trustee of the Magna Carta Trust, and now as the spearhead of these commemorations.

I also want to recognise the important support over many years given to the Magna Carta Trust by the Corporation of London and to thank the Corporation for hosting us tonight in the magnificent surroundings of Guildhall and treating us to a private view of its 1297 example of the Magna Carta, a reminder of the role that London has played in the story of Magna Carta from the very start. And I applaud too the work going on in Surrey County Council, the National Trust and Runnymede Borough Council to ensure that Runnymede itself will be even more memorable to visitors in the future.

I am delighted to be speaking tonight alongside His Excellency, Matthew Barzun, the US Ambassador to the Court of St James. Your presence, Ambassador, is a reminder that Magna Carta has played an important role in the constitutional, social, political and legal development, not just of this country, but also of the United States of America. You could say the United States was one of the Magna Carta’s first great export successes. And if I may in the true spirit of TTIP, we are delighted that the US is now so closely engaged with us in seeking out new markets for the values it represents.

But exactly what is it that makes an 800 year old, hotchpotch of a document worth commemorating? Not that it mandates the removal of all fish weirs from the Thames and the Medway, clearly. Nor, surely, the provision preventing men from being arrested or imprisoned on the testimony of a woman, unless the case involved the death of her husband? In fact, a cursory glance at the specifics might suggest that much of Magna Carta actually has very little to do with our present day understanding of the principles of Democracy and Human Rights.

Its enduring significance lies in two themes - money and justice – which run through the document.

It was sealed at a point in time when the barons had been pushed to their limit by a King who had used his arbitrary power to extort and appropriate their property, more or less at will. When the rebels arrived in Runnymede they came determined to circumscribe the power of the monarch. And they must have been emboldened by their experience in London, which effectively had joined the rebellion by opening its gates to the rebel barons, so setting an example for other towns to follow.

Indeed some might say that Magna Carta’s origins in this confrontation between a King who ignored the economic and political interests of those from whom he derived his power are a powerful reminder to modern politicians of the dangers for a State which tries to live beyond its means and disregards the interests of those who fund it.

Of course, the settlement between monarch and barons was short-lived. But the ground-breaking concept of “equality before the law”, and the understanding that Magna Carta inspired about the relationships between State, the individual and justice, has endured… An understanding that power is not to be exercised in an arbitrary and unconstrained way; that the State is answerable to its citizens; that there must be due process… In short the “rule of law”: the most important of the principles that underpin the strong institutions and accountable government on which this nation and many others have built their success. And upon which long-term sustainable economic and political success of nations still depends – wherever we look in the world.

For where political competition, rule of law, and free speech are lacking, social stability will be vulnerable at best, and absent at worst. And without these vital nutrients the ground will not provide a fertile medium in which innovation and entrepreneurialism can take root – and prosperity can flourish. Conversely, where societies can begin to nurture entrepreneurialism and economic development, the demand for greater rule of law and personal freedom typically grows. In other words, the rule of law, good governance and economic success are mutually reinforcing.

Our Prime Minister has described this insight as the “Golden Thread” that enables a nation to thrive. And that provides a model for those not yet thriving, but aspiring to do so.

In our foreign policy, promoting this Golden Thread of rule of law, strong institutions and accountable government should not be understood as token altruism, tacked on to an otherwise morally- neutral foreign policy. The foreign policy of a democratic nation must have a single, unifying goal: the relentless pursuit of the long-term enlightened national interest - that is, the interests of its citizens, present and future.

But that is not to suggest that the projection of our values is relegated to the margins of foreign policy making. On the contrary, the rule of law, good governance, and the accountability that rests on equality before the law and freedom of speech… these are the building blocks of successful societies and the very expression of our national self-interest.

And since successful societies are the building blocks of the global security and prosperity to which our nation aspires, so the rule of law, good governance, and accountability are fundamental enablers of our own national security and prosperity objectives. So that “enlightened national interest” involves an understanding that where we can contribute to better governance and the rule of law in other countries we will be enhancing their stability and development and so enhancing our own security and prosperity.

And reflecting on the history of Magna Carta can guide any democracy which seeks to uphold the rule of law across the world.

First, we should remember Magna Carta was not a big bang moment when out of nothing a free and just society came into being in this country overnight. Rather it was a critical step on an incremental process towards parliamentary democracy as we know it. (Witness, for example, the huge time lag between Magna Carta and universal suffrage in this country or between the US Constitution which it inspired and the repeal of segregation laws in the United States.) So we should be measured in our expectations and patient wherever evolutionary reform is in train… so long as the direction of travel is the right one.

Secondly, Magna Carta has, through the ages, shown a capacity to inspire beyond its borders. In India, the world’s largest democracy and throughout the Commonwealth it has made its presence felt. In the US, where its image adorns the great doors of the Supreme Court, Magna Carta provided inspiration for the founding fathers. And as the world recovered from the trauma of World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt heralded the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as an “international Magna Carta”. In its preamble the Declaration clearly reflects the spirit of the ancient document as it warns: “it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law”.

So the history of Magna Carta teaches us that its values are …incremental in their establishment, …universal in their relevance, …and adaptable in their application.

This has three implications for how we should approach the promotion of Magna Carta principles around the world. First, we should aim primarily to inspire by example. As Gladstone said, the first principle of good foreign policy is good government at home. We must constantly be working to address the deficiencies of our own systems if we want to be credible in urging other countries to emulate them.

Secondly, while a body of international law inspired by Magna Carta prescribes what are near universally accepted standards, we should not seek to impose one-size-fits-all solutions on other nations. We must recognise that democracy and the rule of law takes time to take root; and that its precise form will reflect where a nation is on its development pathway and the culture and the traditions which make it unique. That is the approach taken by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which the Government funds, to strengthen parliaments, political parties and civil society around the world – sharing the UK’s own experience and expertise, while recognising that our experience cannot simply be grafted onto a foreign culture.

Thirdly, in any one country we should above all concern ourselves with the trajectory that political and judicial development is taking. Where it is pointed towards better governance and greater adherence to the rule of law, we should ask ourselves, can we exert a material influence, can we work with the grain? And we should see an economic, as well as a political challenge: how can we target our development assistance to support the emergence of the kind of open government and rule-of-law based societies that enable long-term economic success? And where countries are heading in the opposite direction, we must have the courage to say so. Not sitting in judgement, but speaking candidly, as would any individual concerned that their neighbour is acting in a way contrary to his own interests and those of the neighbourhood as a whole, warning of the consequences of turning one’s back on the lessons of 800 years of history.

But we didn’t build our system in a day – and when we urge others to adopt it, we should pause to remember that with appropriate humility. The road from Magna Carta to our modern democracy is surely the greatest (if perhaps the most extended) illustration of the virtue of evolution, over revolution. So in 2015, both as Foreign Secretary and as Member of Parliament for Runnymede, I am committed to ensuring that the legacy of the 800th anniversary commemoration of Magna Carta is local, national and global in its reach.

As Patron of the Egham Museum, I am proud of the outreach work the museum is doing to bring learning about Magna Carta to schoolchildren across my constituency. As a member of the Government I am proud of the ‘surprising’ £1 million grant we have made to support the 800th Commemoration.

And as Foreign Secretary I am proud to be able to tell you that the FCO’s network of Embassies is already playing a part in supporting the Magna Carta commemorations in the United States, where the Hereford Magna Carta had a well received exhibition in Texas last year and - the Lincoln Magna Carta - one of only four 1215 originals - is on display in the Library of Congress. And our High Commissions across the Commonwealth and our Embassies worldwide will be amplifying the messages of the Magna Carta 800th Commemoration in their public diplomacy, drawing on the impressive educational and historical materials that organisations around the UK are generating under the leadership of the Magna Carta Trust. So it may be 800 years old, but it is as powerful a representation of the values that underpin our nation, as it has ever been.

Magna Carta, a Great British brand, timeless… priceless… class-leading… a top export of Britain’s knowledge economy: available open-source… no copyright… no patents. Its codification of rights and responsibilities… the foundations of our prosperous, vibrant and, in the end, democratic society… available free to any nation that aspires to a more prosperous future.

Long may Magna Carta and its principles flourish…

Let us celebrate it as Britain’s gift to the world…

…and an unrivalled inspiration to the defence of our collective liberty.