The 800th anniversary of Magna Carta has brought with it a lot of rather self-congratulatory and not always entirely relevant musings on the triumph of the Westminster system of government and the superiority of the Anglo-commonwealth legal system, and a number of cautionary warnings issued to world governments about upholding these presumed triumphs and superiorities within and beyond the boundaries of the post-colonial remnants of the British Empire. On national radio, I too have been asked to talk about what the outcomes of the charter were in abstract legal and philosophical terms, both in medieval England and 21st century Australia; and in more human, biographical terms, on what it was about King John himself that provoked it. (Possibly among the most memorable lines about history ever uttered on the ABC: “So, King John was a bit of a tool, wasn’t he?” I have to admit, I actually loved that particular interview!)
Reflecting on this anniversary myself, I realise that, like most of the histories of the past, and with few exceptions, commentators (and I’m talking popular media here) have been approaching Magna Carta mainly as a document of royal and systemic (if not necessarily systematic) significance. In other words, they read it in direct terms as being a verdict on John, and in wider terms as being about rights granted and to be maintained, and about systems thenceforth put in place to do so (themselves also in need of maintenance). All of those things have their place and their interest. But while the barons (and church, Welsh, Scots, Londoners, etc., etc.) are implicitly recognised as part of the narrative of producing Magna Carta, most modern commentaries seem to overlook the essential role of ‘the people’, broadly interpreted, in the charter’s origins, development, granting, and subsequent maintenance.
I don’t want to add tons of unnecessary words to this discussion, as we’re at risk of passing #PeakMagnaCarta very soon already. But having been thinking recently about the historian’s ethical obligations to engage in modern debates of relevance, I do want to add the following 2 cents. Don’t forget that Magna Carta, insofar as it was a victory for legal process, good governance, etc., was a victory of people over systems, for people within systems. It was a victory for a movement of diverse individuals and interest groups who worked to bring about change by recognising common ground and making political use of it, and by compromising where necessary and possible. It was a victory achieved by people who had reflected carefully on and articulated clearly what mattered to them, and found means of voicing it effectively.
In other words, if we are going to enter the murky waters of drawing lessons from history, one of them should be this. When things about society that you value are threatened or inadequately represented or dealt with by the systems within which we live and work, it’s not enough to bleat on about how governments should do certain things, uphold certain rights, or observe particular practices. Just as it’s not enough to put on a pedestal 800 year old moments in the politico-historical continuum as if they are fresh achievements while overlooking both the historical and present realities. We’re at risk, in those moments, of giving in to the seductive lure of teleology. So let’s stop treating Magna Carta like a kind of inevitable step in the glorious legal advancement of Anglo-British culture and its contribution to global society; let’s try to avoid the imperialist and colonial resonances those assumptions tend to carry with them, and try thinking of ourselves instead as heirs of the barons (et al.). Magna Carta is as much about the meaning of polity as it is a legal line in the sand.
Here’s my prescription: Read the damn thing if you haven’t already. And reflect on why these 63[ish] demands mattered to people, and why they came to be committed to parchment. And reflect on what those making those demands did to achieve that. David Carpenter’s excellent introduction to the new Penguin edition will help you if you need some guidance on these matters. Now reflect on what actually really matters to you in life, and in society. If those things are threatened, you need to consider ways to be part of an active movement for changing, preserving, or adapting the systems around you. I’m not advocating that we storm the city of London. But let the Magna Carta anniversary be a moment when you realise your obligations to be an active political participant in the conduct of your own way of life, here and now.