Magna Carta: under threat by the Conservatives?

Eight centuries is a long time. Enough time for monarchs to embrace their declining role in public life. Enough time for democracy to become the norm rather than the exception. And enough time for history to decide that the people will always win out over oppression.

Daniel Speirs argues that it is not enough time for those same people to understand or accept the concept of the rights of the individual.

The Magna Carta, originating as a compromise between King John of England and his barons, was a landmark document in the struggle for constraints on state authority.

While many elements of the charter deal more with interactions between the monarch and the aristocracy, several important precedents were established which have inspired reformers and guided policy making in various forms for centuries.

The legal principle of a fair trial for all ‘freemen’ carries through to today. Most democratic citizens accept the benefits of universal entitlement to justice and integrity in the court system. But are these sacred rights coming under threat?

© Chris Beckett/Creative Commons License

© Chris Beckett/Creative Commons License

The Conservative party have in recent years shown flagrant disregard for any notions of individualism with a strikingly authoritarian criminal justice policy.

As part of the coalition, the Conservatives pushed through the Justice and Security Bill in 2013, which extended the practice of ‘secret trials’- previously used only where issues of ‘national security’ were concerned- to any case which the government felt would compromise “public interest immunity” if details were shared. Even special advocates for the defendant were excluded from the trial process.

Essentially, in Britain today, the government can decide whether or not you deserve to be tried by a jury of your peers with respect to any allegation of criminal activity against you. Ken Clarke, the Justice Secretary who forwarded the bill, successfully shredded the Magna Carta to an extent which no previous English monarch has managed in history.

The British right has also become obsessed with the European Convention on Human Rights, a much celebrated document when it was passed in 1953. The Tory government of the time was a signatory.

In more recent times, the Tories have faced many issues with their attempts to control immigration and combat terrorism due to the Convention. Abu Qatada’s deportation to Jordan was held up for years over concerns about Jordan’s record on human rights for prisoners. Moves to extend the voting franchise to prisoners and a commitment to free movement within the EU are also major points of conflict with the Conservatives.

Provoked into action by the rise of UKIP’s populist opposition to EU membership, David Cameron has pledged to pull Britain out of the European Human Rights community and draft Britain’s own Bill of Rights. The proposed contents of such a Bill have been entirely left out of the debate, but Cameron has previously earmarked the Magna Carta as a supposed form of inspiration.

He made these comments just days after an event to mark 800 years since the Magna Carta was first presented to King John. Prominent members of the royal family attended the event, including the Queen, an appearance intended to display royal consent towards the document and cement its significance in English and British history.

The government elected by the British people in May, however, is seeking to undermine our fundamental rights as human beings at every turn. Those who composed the charter all the way back in 1215 could never have envisaged its spirit being comprehensively trampled by the elected representatives of the very people it was supposed to protect.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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