On 15 June fifteen thousand of us gathered on the meadows at Runnymede, to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. We had been invited by the National Trust (landowner) and Surrey County Council.
It was sad that not one bit of publicity mentioned that this meadow is common land. Indeed the trust and the council had to obtain consent, under section 38 of the Commons Act 2006, for the infrastructure for the event as these were works on common land.
They also needed consent for the sculpture, The Jurors, commissioned for the occasion from Hew Locke. It is a fascinating work, 12 bronze chairs for 12 jurors, each with embossed with intricate images and symbols representing the 800-year struggle for freedom.
We were joined by four members of the royal family, the Master of the Rolls Lord Dyson, the prime minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury among others. The event included the dedication of The Jurors and the rededication of the American Bar Association Memorial, which was built in 1957 to celebrate Magna Carta and its profound influence on the American justice system. There was a procession of flags designed by schoolchildren. Music was provided by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
But the hypocrisy came with the prime minister’s speech (remember that three years ago David Cameron admitted that he did not know the translation of Magna Carta). At Runnymede he said that Magna Carta had ‘altered for ever the balance of power between the governed and government. … What happened in this meadow 800 years ago is as relevant today as it was then. Its remaining copies maybe faded but its principles shine brighter than ever.
‘Here in Britain the good name of human rights has sometimes been 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 an anniversary like this.’
Yet he plans to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights.
He went on: ‘Liberty, justice, democracy are the rule of law. We hold these things dear. Let us pledge to keep those principles alight. What we do today will shape the world for many, many years to come.’
His government has already crushed free speech by making it much more difficult for charities to lobby parliament, and to challenge decisions by judicial review. I was sitting next to a lawyer who works for the criminal justice system and whose help to oppressed people is dependent on the provision of legal aid; she is finding that the cuts in public funding are making it increasingly difficult for the public to have access to law. It did not strike me that the principles of Magna Carta are shining very bright.
The Archbishop of Canterbury on the other hand recognised our past wrongdoings when he admitted that ‘the church and others have failed to uphold the principles of Magna Carta’ and he sited support for the inclosures as an example.
Magna Carta has endured for an amazing length of time, clause 39 is still law: No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights of 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 judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. It made me think of the way we treated the First Nations in north America— hardly in keeping with clause 39.
The day ended with the red arrows flying over
and Gloriana was waiting on the river to ferry people across to the historic Ankerwycke.