Magna Carta – 800 Years of Freedom for Today
Speech delivered at Seminar on Magna Carta, Former Congress Building, Santiago, Chile, on 15 June 2015.
Ladies and Gentlemen. Good morning. Thank you for coming along today to this important and interesting seminar on the Magna Carta organised by University Gabriela Mistral. A day to commemorate, and celebrate, 800 years of history, but also, I hope, to reflect on what Magna Carta means for our societies, and our world, today.
Events are taking place all across the UK today, and indeed, all year. A major exhibition has been visited by over 60 000 people at the British Library. Every primary school in Britain will receive a modern copy of the Magna Carta. A statue of Her Majesty, The Queen, was unveiled yesterday at Runnymede, the site of the signing of the Magna Carta, marking 800 years of acceptance of the Crown of the rule of law, and reflecting the principles upheld in our society. And today, the Queen and members of the Royal family will attend the official ceremony for the commemorations. So, why is the Magna Carta so important, and indeed why are you here today to discuss its significance?
I will leave it to the experts you will hear this morning, to cover the detailed history and influence of the Magna Carta. But to highlight some of the key aspects:
The Magna Carta, was signed on 15 June 1215 – 800 years ago today. Many of its 63 clauses have disappeared, but some remain and it established the rule of law. Clause 39 stated:
‘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.’
Clause 40 stated:
‘To no-one will we sell, to no-one will we deny or delay, right or justice.’
Clauses 39 and 40 remain on the statute book. The fundamental principle that nobody, not even the King, is above the law, underpins English law today.
What led to the Magna Carta? In 1215 the barons, the influential landowners of England, came to King John, and ensured that the Magna Carta was signed. Things had been brought to such a point by rising tensions in the country, over land, summary justice, corruption, and a people who felt that their voice was not heard. The key clauses cover no detention without trial, no confiscation of property without trial, no price for accessing justice, justice to be delivered by the judgement of one’s equals, and the principle that the law applies to everyone.
The original Magna Carta, as such, lasted less than 3 months, but was then reaffirmed and reissued, and underpinned the development of English law. Its ideas and ideals live on today, 800 years later, embedded in societies around the world. Essentially it is a ‘charter of liberties’. It provides a framework, for the benefit of all – it influenced the origins of Parliament and the birth of democracy in the 13th century. It was vital in the evolution of the institutions of State and Parliament in the 17th century. Countries around the world drew on its principles. America’s 1791 Bill of Rights states:
‘No person shall be … deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.’
Magna Carta underpins the basis on which people can stand up for what they believe in. Some of the landmarks relating to the Magna Carta, the rule of law, the rights of individuals and the right to justice and a fair trial include Votes for Women, and the powerful assertion of Nelson Mandela, during his trial in 1964. He stated that he was prepared to die, citing the Magna Carta, challenging the authorities in the apartheid regime, to sustain the need for independence and impartiality in the judicial system.
In developing the United Nations 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Eleanor Roosevelt said it was an international Magna Carta for all mankind . The Declaration includes:
‘All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection under the law.’
A concept that defines our societies today, our freedoms, our democracies – a cornerstone of justice around the world.
More recently, the Commonwealth Charter, adopted in December 2012, brings together the values and aspirations that unite the 53 countries of the Commonwealth – democracy, human rights and the rule of law – and shows the ongoing influence of the Magna Carta.
The influence of Magna Carta provides a framework for citizenship – the freedom for people to define the society they want to live in, to shape its institutions, but to be confident that this will be done in a free and just way, and in a way that holds others to account. The Magna Carta established a charter for civil liberties and demanded more ethical behaviour.
I would also like to take the opportunity to celebrate another anniversary this month – 20 years of the Nolan principles. These are the principles that guide everyone in public life in the UK. Immediately after the Queen’s Speech on the State Opening of Parliament, on 27 May 2015, the Speaker of the House of Commons reaffirmed those principles to all parliamentarians:
‘I begin by reminding Members of their duty to observe the code of conduct agreed by the House and to uphold the seven principles of public life that underpin it: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.’
These are the principles that represent the public’s expectation of the standards of behaviour of those who serve them – parliamentarians, civil servants, those who deliver public services.Good standards. Good principles. That help build a society, help build strong institutions, and a society in which the rule of law, stemming back to the Magna Carta, prevails.
Today, there will be many celebrations both in the UK, and around the world, on the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta. The foundation of justice.The foundation of liberty. The foundation of democracy. Today, many of the values established in British society, of freedoms, of strong institutions, transparency, ethical standards, and, the rule of law and accountability, stem from the framework it created. It also places a responsibility on us all to define and defend those values. Values that build a country, and help build a better world.Something for us all to celebrate.
Fiona Clouder, Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Chile, 15 June 2015.