With trust in British politicians and institutions at its lowest ebb ever in modern times, I suggest that as the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta is approaching, we should revisit this great charter and make it a goal, once more, to strive for.
A recent study by The Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU)-Democracy is at a standstill- casts disturbing light on just how low our opinion of our institutions has fallen.
According to the EIU faith and trust in British institutions has reached an ‘all time low’. Britain now possesses one of the lowest political participation rates in the developed world. We are, in the words of the EIU, in the midst of ‘a deep institutional crisis’, and in a study of 167 countries we sit behind Iraq and Palestine in political participation rates.
The EIU report concluded that in Britain: ‘Problems are reflected across many elements – voter turn-out, political party membership, the willingness of citizens to engage in politics and their attitudes towards it. Trust in government, parliament and politicians is at an all-time low’ (my emphasis).The crisis in trust in our key institutions has been exacerbated by recent scandals involving the police, the church, our financial systems, the BBC, and the media (phone hacking).
The EIU report specifically signalled out the Libor rate rigging scandal as a key factor in recent low political participation, while disillusionment with our political systems has been further damaged by the MPs' expenses scandal and ‘cash for questions’ controversies.
The EIU argue that the British public remain disaffected with politicians who they believe have not sufficiently cleaned up their own act, and have failed to call the bankers to account for triggering the financial crash that precipitated the severe austerity measures now being imposed on the British people. It even suggests that the 2011 riots were a response to a loss of confidence in our political and ruling elite.
These are disturbing times for our democracy, and the more our elite institutions are exposed, the greater the risk to our democratic future. Greater accountability, transparency, honesty and humility may do something to alleviate this fall from grace.
The disconnect between the public and traditional political parties, as Henry Porter, writing in The Observer has noted, is hardly surprising, given the intellectual void in the governing elites.
Here is something that perhaps David Cameron could do to redeem himself and save British democracy-whatever of it that still exists!
Next year, election year, there is a wonderful opportunity, for all political parties and institutions, in the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta- the most important legal document ever written- to begin to develop a truly sustainable modern democracy.
This is, admittedly, a difficult area for David Cameron, who, when questioned by David Letterman on US TV in 2012, was unable to say that Magna Carta simply meant great charter, but perhaps we should overlook this fairly amazing gaffe (for an Oxford-educated prime minister) and encourage him and others to inaugurate a national movement of political renewal with the charter as the context and inspiration.
In Praise of Magna Carta
King John signed the Magna Carta at Runnymede on the 19th June 1215
As Lord Philips, amongst many others, has noted: ‘The early settlers in the United States took with them copies of the Magna Carta. One undertaking given by King John in that Charter was as follows:
‘No freeman shall be arrested or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way victimised, neither will we attack him or send anyone to attack him except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land. To no-one will we refuse or delay right or justice.
‘It is that undertaking for which Magna Carta is recognised and revered. It was an undertaking which Parliament was later to embody in our statue law. It was an undertaking which was, in due course, reflected in the writ of Habeas Corpus. It is that undertaking which the American Bar Association had in mind when they built Runnymede the rotunda that stands as a tribute to Magna Carta, symbol of freedom under the law. It is that undertaking which we are celebrating so gloriously today.’
Magna Carta Today
“To no one deny or delay right or justice”
An article by The Rt Hon Baroness Scotland QC
‘Magna Carta has made a long journey through time, spanning the globe by virtue of its implications and legacy. It has transcended barriers of language and the divisions of cultures and ideologies. 800 years on, the simple ideas of Freedom and Justice have become part of the genetic structure of humankind.
‘Whenever denials of Magna Carta’s first principles have taken place, it has led to dehumanisation, genocide and an uncomfortable retrograde step against evolution itself. This has happened many times, but the indestructibility of the idea has re-emerged, usually more potent than before. Magna Carta provided the active ingredient and fired the imagination of the charismatic Simon de Montfort, and the first ever directly elected Parliament in 1264.
‘The convulsion of the English Civil War, which saw a far more drastic conclusion of the monarch’s power and authority than anything that took place at Runnymede, found the spirit of Magna Carta evoked during the Putney Debates of 1647. With the Restoration of Charles II, Magna Carta helped to codify the ancient writ of Habeas Corpus passed by Parliament in 1679.
‘Ideas of freedom and democracy, the rule of law to which all are subject and which are such a feature of Magna Carta spread via France to the rebellious colonies of the New World. Thomas Jefferson not only paid tribute to the Levellers of the Putney Debates as an inspiration for the revolution, but used the breaches of the Magna Carta by yet another king, as retrospective justification for creating a brand new country in 1776.
‘Amendments to the Constitution of the United States numbers 5 and 14, concerning the primacy of the law above the head of state, trace their lineage to the death of the Divine Right of Kings and a chopping block in Whitehall.
‘Later in 1948, the world, when confronted with the smouldering evidence of what happens when freedom, democracy and the rule of law are swept aside by force, adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and it is still for many, a work in progress.
‘The legacy of empire left behind the principles of Magna Carta enshrined within the constitution of the world’s largest democracy in 1947. With a population of over 1.2 billion people, India is a powerful guarantor of Magna Carta principles.
‘The European Convention of Human Rights echoes Magna Carta in Article 6 and now, many millions of people in a post-cold war Europe have inherited the legacy of the events of 19 June, 1215.
‘To the present day, Magna Carta is evoked and cited whenever basic freedoms come under threat from over zealous governments, even in the cradle of world democracy itself. David Davis MP, stood down from Parliament in order to fight a by-election on the issue of 42-day detention in 2008, Magna Carta providing the casus belli. He won the argument and once again, Magna Carta carried the day.
‘800 years on, Magna Carta’s best days lie ahead. As an idea of freedom, democracy and the rule of law, it is lapping against the shores of despotism. The principles set out in Magna Carta have driven the Arab Spring and the continuing protests against despotism around the world. These principles, with the power of social networking and the internet to spread them, will no doubt continue to have huge influence wherever freedom is under attack.
‘The Internet and instant worldwide personal communication are emblematic of the fluttering pennants of the twenty-five barons who waited impatiently for their despotic king to round the last bend in the river on a summer’s day in 1215.’
And now finally, a word of warning: We must not take our democracy for granted, despite the Magna Carta, as it is under constant attack. As Henry Porter, for example has noted:
‘The idea that Britain has much to boast about on the rule of law is ridiculous (think surveillance, secret courts and torture hearings suppressed because of national security). However, the Magna Carta anniversary could be used to regenerate our politics, to create a new constitutional settlement, which, among other things, would delineate rights that parliament and law must protect in ways far superior to the Human Rights Act. We are in desperate need of these things and to offer a disenchanted public the opportunity to recreate their democracy would be a historic act.’
May Magna Carta inspire and guide us for a better future, more just and more honest and trustworthy.
Magna Carta: See The Document