The Magna Carta – great charter – signed in June 1215 by King John of England and the rebellious barons, has achieved contemporary fame unlike any other legal document. Ostensibly enshrining the rights of individual liberty, democracy and protections against arbitrary arrest, the Magna Carta has been cited as inspiration from people and governments across the Left-Right political spectrum.
The 800th anniversary of the charter – in 2015 – was the occasion for numerous official commemorative activities in Britain. While it was an important milestone in English history, let’s also stop venerating it, and understand its proper place in the context of competing social and class forces.
Magna Carta was not the product of a specific British/English predisposition for democracy, nor a peculiar British commitment to individual liberty, but of a particular convergence of conflicting intra-elite class forces. King John’s military adventures in northern France, attempting to reconquer English territories, ended in failure in 1214. The onerous taxes John had imposed to finance that ten-year campaign, were the target of grumbling protests by the baronial elite.
Not only was John asking for even more money, he also faced a nationalist Welsh uprising. Adding to John’s difficulties, the Church opposed his appointee designate for the post of Archbishop of Canterbury. The Church – an ecclesiastical wealthy landowning class – was watching the growing organisation of the rebellious barons with increasing alarm. A festering civil war was in the offing, and the barons seized London, pledging to compel the king to accept their terms.
King John’s dangerous mix of military failure in France, financial exactions of the baronial class, and harsh implementation of arbitrary justice finally combined to cause the Crown’s undoing. In June 1215, the barons forced John to sign the list of their demands – Magna Carta – at Runnymede.
This document does not actually guarantee individual liberties, or even mention trial by jury, or ensure that everyone is equal before the law. The original document, signed by King John, contained a list of demands resolving the specific grievances of the barons. The 1215 document was a failure; John repudiated its contents the year after it was signed, and asked the Pope to annul it. Later in 1216, John contracted dysentery and died. The still-unresolved conflict continued to simmer.
The charter was revised and reissued numerous times. The 1225 version is on display at the British Library. Its 63 clauses – in the 1215 original – dealt with various issues of aristocratic and merchant property rights. A number of clauses dealt with the removal of fish weirs, the abolition of outdated taxes, and demanded unrestricted trade for merchants.
However, the most well-known clauses, cited as protection against detention without trial, protection against arbitrary arrest and torture, and upholding the rule of law, are clauses 39 and 40. Translated into modern English, they state the following:
39 – No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or 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.
40 – To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.
These are the proviso most often cited as a defence of constitutional gradualism, and Magna Carta was upheld by politically diverse forces since the end of the 1200s. Sir Edward Coke, in his struggle against the Stuart monarchs, cited Magna Carta as a weapon against unrestricted royal powers. Radical movements in the English Civil War referred to Magna Carta as a protective legal document against state repression. The American revolutionaries, in their fight against the English Crown, cited Magna Carta as a shield in opposition to government by royal decree.
The principle of habeas corpus, which prohibits detention without trial, is certainly under attack today. The capitalist system, as it decays and becomes more barbarous, is removing any vestige of civil liberties or democratic rights. The US and Britain, through various legalistic measures and control orders, have imprisoned persons without charge or trial for years, using the pretext of terrorism to do so.
The notion of privacy and civil liberties has been made a mockery of, with the rise of tech companies and surveillance capitalism. The algorithms in the search engines they own – and we use – have aggregated all kinds of data about our behaviour. Our searches, purchases, likes and dislikes, are all metadata, stored by the big IT monopolies. The personal data they collect is used to analyse our behaviour and predilections. The commercial imperative of mass surveillance on the internet has undercut any notion of individual privacy.
Magna Carta has contemporary relevance, and is a seminal event in English history. Rather than singing paeans to constitutional gradualism, let’s understand the competing class forces that resulted in its creation. Civil liberties have been won through hard struggle – let’s not forget that while highlighting the conduct of governments that violate the provisions of Magna Carta.