Ladies and gentlemen. Good afternoon.
Eight hundred years ago, in the summer of 1215, an event took place on a riverbank near London, which dramatically changed the course of the whole English speaking world and beyond.
Civil society in England had then been pushed to their limits by a King who had used his arbitrary power to extort and appropriate their property, more or less at his personal whim and will.
When this group arrived at that riverbank, known as Runnymede, they came determined to circumscribe the power of the monarch.
The result was the Magna Carta, whose 800th anniversary we are celebrating this year.
At 4,000 words long and divided into 63 clauses it is a substantial document.
And frankly it’s a bit of an hotchpotch. For example it contains clauses covering the removal of all fish weirs from the Thames: and a provision preventing men from being arrested or imprisoned on the testimony only of a woman.
In fact, a 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.
Rather its enduring significance instead lies in its main themes of rule of law and justice for all. Themes that have been widely replicated and interpreted in the centuries that followed setting out the basic liberties of the English and other nations.
The Founding Fathers drew on them in writing the American Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Its ideas are present in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The principles resonate throughout the Commonwealth.
Politicians, even today, love to invoke Magna Carta as a bulwark for the rights of the ordinary man. Its place as a symbol of a government’s willingness to embrace restraint has been fixed. It has come to represent Year Zero in the march towards civil liberties and democracy.
It remains a powerful reminder to modern politicians of the dangers for a State that tries to live beyond its means and disregards the interests of those who fund it. The understanding remains:
- 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; and
- that the “rule of law” is the most important of the principles that underpin strong institutions and accountable government.
Throughout the Commonwealth we pride ourselves on promoting the Golden Thread of the rule of law, strong institutions and accountable government. This is not token altruism, but a single, unifying goal. These are the building blocks of successful societies.
Together the nations of the Commonwealth contribute to better governance and the rule of law in all our partners. We seek to enhance stability and development and so enhance security and prosperity.
Together we concern ourselves with the trajectory that political and judicial development across the Commonwealth is taking.
And together where we see that trajectory heading in the wrong direction, we must have the courage to say so. Not sitting in judgement, but speaking candidly, warning of the consequences of turning one’s back on the lessons of 800 years of history.
It is equally right that all sections of society, be they the barons or peasants should strive to hold to account any government over these principles.
Especially the young.
The theme of this year’s Commonwealth day is “A Young Commonwealth” – young people with potentialities who play a vital role in sustainable development and democracy.”
How can we ensure the Young understand and play a part?
In Bangladesh where over 50 million of its people are under 14, the UK has been playing an active role in helping young people to develop, learn and achieve their potential.
We have been exploring with them how to promote the principles of democratic and inclusive participation:
- what does it mean for elections to be “free and fair”;
- how can we learn and discuss diversity of viewpoints in a civil, balanced, and non-partisan environment;
- how to hone political skills, such as holding of press conferences and campaigning.
We hope to create and encourage a new generation of people, for whom the Magna Carta is not an historical document but a living testament for today’s democracies.
We want to ensure that their voice and aspirations are heard. That their energy, passion and innovation are best utilised. And that their own children have the right education and skills and environment needed for the future.
It is not easy. The violence that we have seen over the past two months has had a particular impact on young people in Bangladesh. Children have been killed and horrifically injured in indiscriminate arson attacks. Over a million children – the voters of tomorrow - have had essential SSC examinations cancelled or moved.
I unequivocally condemn this violence. Political leaders of all parties have a special responsibility not only to protect the most vulnerable in society but to allow them opportunity to flourish. The future generations of Bangladesh should not be sacrificed by short-term political quarrelling.
Much of the political debate in Bangladesh over the last four years has been focused on elections.
But democracy is not solely, or even mainly, about elections. It’s about what happens in between elections. It is about participation in decisions that shape our futures. It is about election pledges being kept and delivered. It is about leaders being held to account for their actions on behalf of all of the people of their country – whether or not they voted, or indeed were able to vote.
The UK and Bangladesh have both signed up to the numerous international Conventions and Covenants that have given life to the Universal Declaration and indirectly to the principles of the Magna Carta.
We welcome Bangladesh’s membership of the UN Human Rights Council and its representation on various treaty bodies. We welcome its leadership of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and International Parliamentary Union.
But with membership comes responsibility. Responsibility to uphold the principles of those bodies. Responsibility to ensure those principles are fully implemented domestically as well as internationally.
In my speech last year, I talked about the Commonwealth Charter. This has been adopted by all member countries and sets out - for the first time in a single document - the Commonwealth’s core values.
It commits its leaders to:
- upholding democracy and human rights,
- promoting tolerance and respect,
- protecting the environment,
- providing citizens with access to health, education and food and
- recognising the positive role of young people in promoting these and other values.
As one of the largest members of the Commonwealth in terms of population size, Bangladesh has a key role to play in keeping these principles and turning them into reality.
The current Government has committed itself to further developing Bangladesh into a modern, pluralistic and tolerant society, with democracy and the rule of law at its core.
I want to encourage this.
But I also want to encourage the young people of today across Bangladesh and the Commonwealth to ensure this Government and all governments keep their promises.
The future belongs to the young. But the young, as we too cannot, should not ignore the present. The young have, as this year’s theme says, a vital role to play.
I hope the young of Bangladesh will accept and seize this responsibility.
I hope they will honour those brave men of 800 years ago.
I hope they will honour all the brave people throughout the ages, not least in 1971, who sought justice and democracy and ensure their memories are honoured and their aims fulfilled.
I hope they will ensure that the Magna Carta and its principles continue to flourish in Bangladesh, and globally, and be valued as Britain’s gift to the world.