Unfortunately for David Cameron, the real lesson of the Magna Carta story is that only a determined mass movement can win political and social equality
The great myth of British history is that it is dominated by continuity, and lacks moments of radicalism; that it demonstrates constitutional gradualism rather than revolution. On this basis Magna Carta, the charter of rights and liberties granted by King John in 1215, is claimed as the foundation of an English constitution which has essentially remained in place, only gradually adapting to a changing world. (English gradualism papers over more obvious upheavals in Welsh, Scottish and Irish histories in this tale).
This whole narrative falls apart if the most cursory attention is paid to the many serious upheavals in British history, from the peasant revolt of 1381, to the revolutions and civil wars of 1640 to 1649, and 1685 - 1688, or the Jacobite rebellion of 1715, never mind many other periods of serious dissension and revolt.
Nonetheless, can it be argued that Magna Carta is a fair foundation for the establishment story? Does it underpin the set of conservative civic and political values that David Cameron would like to be drummed into the heads of schoolchildren? There are a number of reasons why the real history of Magna Carta does not, in fact, support this.
1The granting of the Great Charter was no calm constitutional event, with rights and liberties freely granted by a gracious king (later kings tried to make their re-issues look like this). It was forced on King John in 1215 by a rebellion of leading barons, who, with some justification, regarded the king as a cruel tyrant.
2The charter was seen as a real threat to the social and political order at the time. It was immediately condemned by the Pope Innocent III who argued that it undermined the authority of both king and Pope, and was ‘not only shameful and demeaning but also illegal and unjust’. Monarchical authority should not be limited by the demands of subjects, was the papal position.
3John repudiated the document as soon as he could, and it only survived through renewed conflict. It was issued in the name of the child king Henry III in 1216 and 1217 to settle the civil war. Conflicts continued between the king and the barons, largely over taxation for war, and reached a peak in the rebellion of 1258-65, led by Simon de Montfort. During this, royal power came close to being permanently eclipsed. The embedding of Magna Carta in English political life involved a seismic struggle over the nature and extent of royal power.
4Although the bulk of Magna Carta was concerned with aristocratic property rights, it did recognise many rights important to freemen, and the liberties of towns. This is no accident, since the rebellion of 1215 hinged on the support of the citizens and people of London. King John was finally forced to negotiate only when Londoners handed the city to the rebels. The barons depended for legitimacy on a wide social base of support.
5The support of the people in general, not just knights and civic elites, became important early on. The contest between the barons and the king was finely balanced. This explains why, when King Henry III re-issued Magna Carta in 1225, the subsidiary ‘Forest Charter’ granted certain rights also to unfree peasants.
6The only rights that ordinary people have are those gained through struggle. Magna Carta, and the events associated with it, clearly gave space for commoners to assert themselves. Peasants from the thirteenth century onwards made use of the courts to try to extend their rights, sometimes even appealing to the Domesday Book of William I, but more plausibly using Magna Carta. The peasants fought for what they believed ought to be their rights, culminated in the great rising of 1381. Although this was defeated, serfdom declined precipitously thereafter.
7Ever since, the tradition of Magna Carta has been used consistently to struggle for rights against state repression. So much so that a key figure in Charles I’s attempt to construct an absolutist monarchy in England, Archbishop Laud, complained that ‘the Great Charter had an obscure birth from usurpation, and was fostered and shewed to the world by rebellion.’ The Leveller leader, John Lilburne appealed to Magna Carta in his struggle to democratise the English Revolution in 1649.
8 A law is only worth what the balance of class forces allows it to mean. Magna Carta may have been an inspiration for the development of the American constitutional tradition, however it was also used to defend the institution of slavery, as it could be interpreted as defending property rights. Of course, it was also invoked in the struggle to abolish slavery, but the moral is that it is the struggle for social justice that makes law, and enforces decent values, not the other way round.
9The response of the British ruling class to the radical turn of the French revolution in 1792, and its threats of equality and democracy, was to champion Magna Carta as superior due to its position as hallowed tradition. Nonetheless, in face of a growing radical movement demanding democratic change, especially after the wars with France ended in 1815, the government reacted with savage repression, even suspending Habeas Corpus, the seventeenth-century law that descends from chapter 39 of Magna Carta: ‘No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned … save by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.’ The establishment only values these principles when it is convenient.
10Magna Carta does not represent democracy as the official commemoration bills it, brazenly assuming a curious ignorance of history. Democracy was gained through people’s struggles from the seventeenth century to the twentieth. Any degree of legal equality or political rights that have been obtained need to be continually defended against attack.
Certainly the basic principle that no one should be punished by the state except according to the law has been under attack in recent years, with control orders, or Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures, putting many potentially innocent people in legal limbo for years on end. Now the government's new plans include extending its powers against anyone involved in ‘harmful activities’ that, in a chillingly vague phrase are ‘a threat to the functioning of democracy’. These powers will not be used against corporate lobbyists, or media barons like Rupert Murdoch, who really do undermine the functioning of democracy. They could easily be used, however, against protestors attempting to make democracy function in a meaningful way. The present government has no right to lay claim to the spirit of Magna Carta.
There is no equality unless people struggle for it. Neither can equality be seen solely in terms of narrow legal and political rights, but must include rights to a decent standard of life. This must encompass issues such as housing, health care, and education, as well as freedom from oppression, which blights the lives of many, not least from the state's encouragement of Islamophobia. As in the past, so today, only a determined mass movement can win political and social equality, and without it, we will be condemned to the tyrannous rule of corporate kings and barons.
 See Peter Linebaugh, The Magna Carta Manifesto (University of California Press, 2008), p.95, 187-8.
Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire book, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018).
More articles from this author
- Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe - book review
- Shakespeare in a Divided America - book review
- Can economic planning work? - explainer
- The South Sea Bubble: England's first stock market crisis 300 years ago
- Liberalism At Large: The World According to the Economist - book review
- Democratic history challenges imperialist and racist history
- Invisible Leviathan: Marx’s Law of Value in the Twilight of Capitalism - book review