Runnymede, democracy and being British

On our way back from Kent yesterday we stopped at Runnymede, the site where the Magna Carta was signed, inspired by the In Our Time discussion last week. It’s 5 minutes off the M25 at Windsor, and we were lucky to get the only 2 hours of sunshine in a day of driving rain. It seemed very apt to be here at the end of a week in which the revelations about MPs’ expenses have created a political and constitutional crisis. Jackie Ashley writes in today’s Guardian that ‘the expenses scandal is an opportunity to end the days of parliament as an elite club and rejuvenate democracy’. Let’s hope so.

As the Observer editorial declared yesterday:

There is a connection between the current scandal over MPs’ expenses and the recent public outrage over bankers’ bonuses, although the sums involved are on different scales. The link is cultural. In the public eye, MPs and bankers now look equivalent as elites, detached from the real world, enjoying massive privileges and thinking of them as entitlements. In happier economic times, that would be bad for politics. In the current recession, it is disastrous.

At the root of our economic problems is the bankruptcy of a political idea: that an individual’s drive to get rich is also an engine of social progress; that no one should have to justify how much they earn; that the rich, by spending their money, enrich others. That orthodoxy informed the politics of all three main parties. It lay on what they called “the centre ground”. That isn’t to say that MPs fiddled their expenses because they thought greed was good. The point is that the expenses scandal has broken at a time of particular ideological vacuity, when politics seems bereft of guiding principles. Suddenly, no one is on the “centre ground”.

Just when we needed politicians to express moral lessons from the economic crisis – the idea, for example, that financial reward should be linked to social contribution, or that society should be plain fairer – along comes a political crisis that disqualifies MPs from comment on the matter. The property speculation, the widescreen TVs, the ornate furnishings – all recall the bubble economy now burst. They make Parliament look like a remnant of a bygone era.

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 other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.

Clause 39 of Magna Carta.

Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem about the Magna Carta that summons up the vision of the ‘stubborn Englishry’ determined to defend their rights – which seems appropriate in these times.

At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
What say the reeds at Runnymede?
The lissom reeds that give and take,
That bend so far, but never break,
They keep the sleepy Thames awake
With tales of John at Runnymede.

At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
Oh, hear the reeds at Runnymede:
‘You musn’t sell, delay, deny,
A freeman’s right or liberty.
It wakes the stubborn Englishry,
We saw ‘em roused at Runnymede!

When through our ranks the Barons came,
With little thought of praise or blame,
But resolute to play the game,
They lumbered up to Runnymede;
And there they launched in solid line
The first attack on Right Divine,
The curt uncompromising “Sign!’
They settled John at Runnymede.

At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
Your rights were won at Runnymede!
No freeman shall be fined or bound,
Or dispossessed of freehold ground,
Except by lawful judgment found
And passed upon him by his peers.
Forget not, after all these years,
The Charter signed at Runnymede.’

And still when mob or Monarch lays
Too rude a hand on English ways,
The whisper wakes, the shudder plays,
Across the reeds at Runnymede.
And Thames, that knows the moods of kings,
And crowds and priests and suchlike things,
Rolls deep and dreadful as he brings
Their warning down from Runnymede!

On a similar theme, this morning’s column by Charlie Brooker in the Guardian, in which he talks about ‘the real Britain. The decent, tolerant Britain. The country you can be proud of’  is worth quoting in part:

I was born in the 70s and grew up in a tiny rural village. There was, I think, only one black kid in my primary school. One day, someone pushed him over and called him “blackjack”. The headmaster called an impromptu assembly. It involved the entire school, and took place outdoors. No doubt: this was unusual.

We stood in military rows in the playground. I must have been about six, so I can’t remember the words he used, but the substance stuck. He spoke with eerie, measured anger. He’d fought in the second world war, he told us. Our village had a memorial commemorating friends of his who had died. Many were relatives of ours. These villagers gave their lives fighting a regime that looked down on anyone “different”, that tried to blame others for any problem they could find; a bullying, racist regime called “the Nazis”. Millions of people had died thanks to their bigotry and prejudice. And he told us that anyone who picked on anyone else because they were “different’ wasn’t merely insulting the object of their derision, but insulting the headmaster himself, and his dead friends, and our dead relatives, the ones on the war memorial. And if he heard of anyone – anyone – using racist language again, they’d immediately get the slipper…

It was the first time I was explicitly told that racism was unpleasant and it was a lesson served with a side order of patriot fries. Or rather, chips. Our headmaster had fought for his country, and for tolerance, all at once. That’s what I understood it meant to be truly “British”: to be polite, and civil and fair of mind…

But according to the BNP, I’m wrong. Being British is actually about feeling aggressed, mistrustful, overlooked, isolated, powerless, and petrified of “losing my identity”. Britishness incorporates a propensity to look around me with jealous eyes, fuming over imaginary sums of money being doled out to child-molesting asylum-seekers by corrupt PC politicians who’ve lost touch with the common man – a common man who, coincidentally, happens to be white.

They’re wrong, obviously. None of these qualities has anything whatsoever to do with being British, but everything to do with ugly nationalist politics. And ugly nationalist politics are popular all over the world. Just like Pringles. Every country has its own tiny enclave of frightened, disenfranchised, misguided souls clinging to their national flag, claiming they’re the REAL patriots, saying everyone’s out to get them. It’s an international weakness. For the BNP to claim to be more British than the other British parties is as nonsensical as your dad suddenly claiming to have invented the beard.

Runnymede is a water-meadow alongside the River Thames. It’s now owned by the National Trust. We walked through Long Mede, a pleasant meadow that has been used for centuries to provide a good-quality hay, to Cooper’s Hill Woods where the Magna Carta and John F Kennedy memorials are situated.

The name Runnymede may be derived from the Anglo-Saxon describing a place in the meadows or ‘medes’ used to hold regular meetings. The Witan, Witenagemot or Council of the Anglo-Saxon Kings of the 7th to 11th centuries was held from time to time at Runnymede during the reign of Alfred the Great. The Council met usually in the open air. This political organ was transformed in succeeding years influencing the creation of England’s 13th century parliament.

Magna Carta was sealed by King John at Runnymede in June 1215. Known as the Great Charter of English Liberties, it formed a peace treaty with barons who were in revolt against the King due to his disastrous foreign policy and arbitrary government. After negotiations with the barons occupying several days, a preliminary draft of the charter was sealed by King John at Runnymede to mark his formal acceptance of their demands. This draft, known as the Articles of the Barons, and now kept in the British Museum, lists 49 specific grievances that the King agreed to remedy. From it, the full text of the charter was then prepared in the royal chancery, with some further clauses added. A few days later, while the parties remained gathered at Runnymede, copies of the actual charter began to be issued over the King’s seal, for the general information of the realm, and this was the signal for dispersal. Four of these copies survive, at Lincoln and Salisbury Cathedrals, and the two in the British Museum. Translated from the original Latin, their text ends: ‘Given by our hand in the meadow that is called Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines, on the fifteenth day of June in the seventeenth year of our reign’ (i.e. 1215). This date, however, is thought to be that of the sealing of the preliminary draft, not of the issue of the completed charters.

The precise place on the meads at which the parties to these proceedings met is not recorded. The King and his entourage came to Runnymede for the negotiations from Windsor Castle and apparently returned there nightly. The headquarters of the disaffected barons was at Staines. Eight bishops were also present, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, and most of the notability of the land, with their followers. Runnymede was chosen because it was a conveniently large meeting place for so great a throng.

The effect of Magna Carta over the centuries was to guarantee the liberties of the King’s free subjects and to restrict his absolute power. Between 1215 and 1225, a few clauses that had been directed against King John in person were dropped from it and some other revisions made, in the re-issues granted by his successor Henry III. After a number of further reissues, the text of the charter was copied on to the first English Statute Roll in the reign of Edward I and passed into English Law. It has since formed the basis of the constitutions and statues of many other countries in the English-speaking world, including the United States of America. It underlines the Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which goes well beyond its original purpose as a definition of the limitations of royal power.

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