1215 And All That

Eight hundred years on, Magna Carta is being trumpeted as a universally Good Thing. Gill Barron digs deeper.

When eminent lawyer Lord Denning described Magna Carta as "the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot", he was echoing the uncritical reverence with which the British regard all their world-changing inventions: railways, cricket, Yorkshire pudding. And even as tiny tots we learn that, through this "foundational" document, democracy and the rule of law have been our gift to civilisation.

This is the myth being repeated ad nauseam all over the media this summer, and it's balderdash. The evidence is all around us that the freedom of the individual applies only to the rich; the arbitrary authority of corporate despots is paramount; democracy isn't working, and inequality is rife. Magna Carta was an everlasting Charter of Liberties? Some mistake, surely. In 1066 And All That, those astute historians WC Sellars and RJ Yeatman spotted the basic problem:
•That no-one was to be put to death, except for some reason (except the Common People)
•That everyone should be free (except the Common People)
• That the Barons should not be tried except by a special jury of other Barons who would understand.
•Magna Carta was therefore the chief cause of democracy in England, and thus a Good Thing for everyone (except the Common People).

As Professor David Carpenter, who has made a new translation of the charter for the anniversary, explains:

"The king's subjects were far from sharing equally in the Charter's benefits. Indeed, the unfree villeins, who made up perhaps half the population, did not formally share in those benefits at all. The liberties in the Charter were granted not to "all the men" of the kingdom, but to "all the free men". It was likewise only freemen who were protected from arbitrary imprisonment and dispossession by chapter 39. As far as Magna Carta was concerned, both king and lords remained perfectly free to dispossess their unfree tenants at will. The threat of doing so was a vital weapon for control of the peasant workforce."

1066 brought us the Normans, but 1215 entrenched their power. Royal families have come and gone, distracting attention from the real business behind the scenes, conducted by dynasties of feudal landlords descended from those very same Barons who sidelined King John. There were twenty-five of them then, and the number of really major private landowners in Britain today is still around twenty-five. The feudal system continues to permeate society through the endemic snobbery around these top-drawer aristocrats, the (much less than) One Percent still holding the country to ransom.

Another Prof., Nicholas Vincent of UEA, has described how over time Magna Carta has been transformed "from practical law into political totem. It is as symbol that it [has] enjoyed greatest significance, underpinning the attempts by 17th-century parliamentarians, 18th-century revolutionaries, and 19th-century constitutionalists to argue that the sovereign authority, and ultimately the state itself, must abide by the rule of law." All very well and pretty; and Magna Carta is enshrined in the American Constitution, which might have been a worse thing without it. But Peter Linebaugh in The Magna Carta Manifesto has shown how the mere mention of it has legitimised evil deeds: George W Bush, for one, made pious speeches about it, notably in late September 2001, while launching the War on Terror. As Linebaugh says, "subsequent events ripped to shreds chapter after chapter of Magna Carta." In Britain, of course, it has always been the excuse for not having a constitution at all.

So, looking back, beyond the Industrial Revolution when people were herded into towns and milked of their labour; beyond the Enclosures when people were booted off the land, their only means of livelihood, and left in beggary, we see continual exploitation of the unfree, the villeins, the workers. Magna Carta did nothing to prevent any of this, despite the famous Clause 39 which says that no "free" man shall be arrested, imprisoned or dispossessed of his lands ... against the law. Now that democracy has made us all free (in theory), yet the landless still toil – in call-centres on zero-hours contracts instead of in His Lordship's fields – isn't it time for a proper Constitution to replace this outworn shibboleth? The common people need some defence against the corporate Barons of Capitalism who are running the whole show nowadays. They are an even worse "Bad Thing" than Bad King John ever was. 

This article originally appeared as '' in The Land Issue 18 Summer 2015