Magna Carta and the Commonwealth

Speech to the Royal Commonwealth Society and the Australia-Britain Society at the Commonwealth Club in Canberra.


By some accident of history, 2015 turns out to be a year in which we can mark the centenaries of many momentous events in our shared history. This year we have, of course, already commemorated the Gallipoli landings one hundred years ago. I don’t mind telling you that there could be no more instructive and emotional experience for a brand new British High Commissioner to Australia than to stand among a crowd of more than 100,000 people at the Anzac Day Dawn Service here in Canberra. That is a moment that will stay with me forever.

If, from the beaches and bluffs of Anzac Cove, we look back a further 100 years, to 1815, we find ourselves on another battlefield – that of Waterloo. A day – the 18th of June – that was no less grim for being a remarkable victory and another reminder that, throughout our history, Britain has often fought as part of a coalition. At Waterloo it was with Dutch, Belgian and German allies, instead of the Diggers, Kiwis, Indians, Canadians and French we stood with in the Dardanelles.

From the muddy, bloody ground of Waterloo we pass to another churned-up field about 200 miles and 400 years further back: Agincourt. Here in 1415 the ‘English’ army – which in fact contained a large and ultimately crucial body of my Welsh countrymen armed with their deadly longbows – faced a French army that vastly outnumbered them. Despite the odds, these men – immortalised in Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth as the “band of brothers” – won another celebrated victory. And – by demonstrating to the fallen French that their bow fingers remained intact – they introduced to British body language the V-sign, which is now 600 years old.

However, the greatest anniversary in this year of many centenaries – to my mind, at least – occurred 200 years earlier than Agincourt. It was not a momentous battle but the sealing of a peace treaty – not a terribly successful one but we’ll come to that later. That peace treaty became known as Magna Carta and its legacy has proved to be more influential than the outcome of a thousand battles.

Magna Carta was the result of fierce bargaining (what we diplomats might describe as a frank exchange of views) between King John and his rebellious barons aimed at ending a vicious civil war.

John bitterly divides historians – into those who think he was the worst king England ever had, and those who think that, on balance, maybe Richard the Third was a little bit worse.

To do justice to John’s nasty nature and long list of unacceptable behaviour would require far more time than we have tonight. Suffice to say that it is deeply ironic that such an odious character has played such a crucial role in the foundation of the concept of human rights. But I guess no good story is complete without a villain.

Talking of villains, the barons who opposed him were unlikely champions of the rights of the common man – in fact they couldn’t have cared less. They were solely interested in their own rights – which boiled down to the right to exploit the people living on their lands without undue interference from the king in the form of unreasonable taxes, and the right to maintain a private army to make sure these uppity commoners didn’t get any clever ideas about their own rights.

Nevertheless, out of the negotiations between these two highly unattractive parties a principle that we can still recognise today was born – that of no man being above the rule of law, not even the king.

While we are on the subject of villains, it seems to me that they are one of Britain’s greatest cultural exports – or at least Hollywood still seems to think so. Perhaps it’s down to a combination of the British accent, the UK’s awful weather and our deadpan humour. Certainly, whenever producers based in sun-drenched California are in search of a character that just exudes evil they look no further than British actors – and the more aristocratic the accent, the better. Actors like Alan Rickman, Charles Dance and Mark Strong must rejoice at the stereotype. Perhaps if King John were alive today he might have been able to cure his chronic money problems with occasional film roles as a vampire, galactic emperor or Bond villain.

To the modern reader, the significance of Magna Carta is initially hard to distinguish. It begins with a long section about the freedom of the Church which was largely irrelevant to issues that separated the warring parties.

Much of the early part of the document is concerned with rules around inheritance that were of crucial importance to the great families of the time. One of John’s favourite methods of extorting money – and one of the greatest reasons why he was so unpopular – was to demand vast payments to allow heirs to inherit the lands of their recently deceased parents.

Among several others sections designed to limit the King’s ability to extract money from his barons are a number of sensible reforms to the administration of justice, a few promises of additional powers for local government and some mentions of freedoms and protections for merchants.

So far, so moderately interesting…

Then there’s clause 39. Which if you don’t mind, I will quote in full:

No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseized, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any other way ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.

This clause is considered to be of such fundamental importance to our system of law that it remains part of the English legal code today.

The next clause adds:

To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice.

And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, the foundation of the rule of law which, despite a few minor tweaks here and there over the last 800 years, still forms the basis of our legal system.

Of course, not all of the 63 clauses of Magna Carta have survived the test of time so well – for example, the fish-weirs across the Thames and the Medway that appeared to be a major concern in 1215 no longer seem to be the subject of such intense controversy. Incidentally, that clause wasn’t officially repealed until the 1960s.

And I’m particularly proud to note that of the 63 paragraphs of Magna Carta, three specifically relate to the Welsh – which is presumably a sign of the amount of trouble they caused the English crown at that time.

Given the reverence with which Magna Carta is regarded today, you could be forgiven for thinking that it must have been a gloriously successful document that ushered in an era of unparalleled peace and prosperity. In fact, it was a dismal failure. Within weeks of applying his seal to the parchment at Runnymede, King John had reneged on the agreement and restarted the war.

How then did Magna Carta recover from this unremarkable beginning to rise to global significance? The death of John just 16 months later was certainly a big help. As was the fact that after years of civil war, anarchy and the minor issue of a French invasion, his successor, Henry the Third, was in need of what we might now call a “quick win”. Magna Carta was duly revived and issued in 1216 then again in 1217 following the conclusion of the war, which ended when the French were paid an enormous sum of money to go home.

The re-embracing of Magna Carta in 1217 proved to be at least somewhat effective in bringing the country together. So the trick was repeated several times by Henry who, on average, either reissued or confirmed Magna Carta about once every five years throughout his reign, which lasted until 1272. What is considered to be the definitive version of Magna Carta was issued by Edward the First in 1297. It is a copy of this version that now sits just up the road in Parliament House.

Ladies and gentlemen, with the issue of the 1297 version, Magna Carta had secured its place as the foundation of the English legal system. But how did make the giant leap from the legal history of one relatively small European country to achieve global influence?

In part, it was a question of timing. Magna Carta rose to significance again in the seventeenth century when England was wracked by a new civil war against a tyrannical king. The principles enshrined in Magna Carta were used first to justify opposition to Charles the First and then later to inform the 1689 Bill of Rights under William of Orange, a Dutch monarch imported in the belief that he would protect ancient rights, such as those laid down in Magna Carta.

At the same time, settlers from England were sailing to colonise lands in the New World and taking with them a fundamental belief in their rights as set out in Magna Carta. These ideas strongly influenced the 1776 Declaration of Independence and the newly formed United States’ own Bill of Rights twenty or so years later.

Our American cousins recognised that by establishing the concept of the Rule of Law, Magna Carta was not just the foundation for a system of justice but for democracy too. Indeed, the esteem in which Magna Carta is held by Americans is demonstrated by the fact that it is depicted on the doors of the US Supreme Court.

Having proved their worth in America, these Magna Carta-based democratic ideals soon spread to other new countries with a connection to the English legal system. It has influenced, to a greater or lesser extent, the constitutions of Australia, India, Canada, New Zealand and many other Commonwealth nations.

If its influence had remained solely within the Anglosphere then the legacy of Magna Carta would be remarkable enough. But that influence was multiplied many times over through the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the similarities in language are unmistakable. Indeed, Eleanor Roosevelt – who chaired the committee that drafted the declaration – described it as “the international Magna Carta for all mankind”.

More recently – and perhaps of particular interest to many of us in this room – the Charter of the Commonwealth adopted in December 2012 stands both as an example of the ongoing influence of the original Magna Carta and the continued relevance of a written charter of rights, responsibilities and values in the 21st Century.

Ladies and gentlemen, as citizens of the Commonwealth we are the fortunate inheritors of Magna Carta’s legacy. And although we are thankfully separated by 800 years and – I hope – by the values we hold dear, from the group of thoroughly unpleasant men – and they were all men – who were the architects of Magna Carta, I think perhaps it is time we recognised their efforts.

So, if Her Majesty will excuse me proposing a toast to another monarch at an occasion to mark her birthday, I hope you will join me in raising a glass to those unwitting instigators and defenders of universal human rights: King John and his barons.

Published 12 June 2015