800 years ago, on this day, King John put his seal to a document that would change the world.
We talk about the ‘law of the land’ and this is the very land where that law – and the rights that flow from it – took root.
The limits of executive power, guaranteed access to justice, the belief that there should be something called the rule of law, that there shouldn’t be imprisonment without trial, Magna Carta introduced the idea that we should write these things down and live by them.
That might sound like a small thing to us today. But back then it was revolutionary, altering forever the balance of power between the governed and the government.
Why it matters
What happened in these meadows 8 centuries ago is as relevant today as it was then. And that relevance extends far beyond Britain.
All over the world, people are still struggling to live by the rule of law and to see their governments subject to that law.
The countries that have these things tend to be the long term successes. Those who don’t tend to be the long term failures.
And what is taken for granted here in Britain, what is sewn into the fabric of our nation, so deep we barely even question it is what others are crying out for, hoping for, praying for.
Why do people set such store by Magna Carta? Because they look to history.
They see how the great charter shaped the world for the best part of a millennium helping to promote arguments for justice and freedom.
Did those barons know, I wonder, how its clauses would echo through the ages?
Inspiring those who fought in the English Civil War, giving fuel to the Chartists, succour to the Suffragettes and ammunition to anyone challenging injustice or checking arbitrary power.
And did they know that the seeds sown here would grow throughout the world?
Think of America – of the founding charters and codes of the earliest states and you will see Magna Carta being referenced, alluded to, even copied.
Think of India, of Gandhi, when he brought more rights to his people overseas. With his Indian Relief Act he declared he had something special: the “Magna Carta of our liberty in this land”.
Think of South Africa – of that courtroom in Rivonia. As Nelson Mandela stood in the dock, looking at a lifetime in prison, it was Magna Carta that he cited.
For him, that document was a crucial part of the British freedoms he so admired, that he so wanted for his own people, an ideal for which he was prepared to die.
Magna Carta takes on further relevance today.
For centuries, it has been quoted to help promote human rights and alleviate suffering all around the world.
But here in Britain, ironically, the place where those ideas were first set out, the good name of ‘human rights’ has sometimes become distorted and devalued.
It falls to us in this generation to restore the reputation of those rights – and their critical underpinning of our legal system.
It is our duty to safeguard the legacy, the idea, the momentous achievement of those barons.
And there couldn’t be a better time to reaffirm that commitment than on an anniversary like this.
Magna Carta is something every person in Britain should be proud of.
Its remaining copies may be faded, but its principles shine as brightly as ever, in every courtroom and every classroom, from palace to Parliament to parish church.
Liberty, justice, democracy, the rule of law – we hold these things dear, and we should hold them even dearer for the fact that they took shape right here, on the banks of the Thames.
So on this historic day, let’s pledge to keep those principles alight.
Let’s keep Magna Carta alive.
Because – as those barons showed, all those years ago – what we do today will shape the world, for many, many years to come.