Eight hundred years ago, this month, King John reluctantly signed Magna Carta, a form of peace treaty forced on him by rebellious barons. It is considered to have marked the beginning of the end of the age of despotism. Some also see Magna Carta as the extension into politics of Christianity’s leveling theology: no longer was there one chosen people (monarch); all humanity had access to salvation (the law).
Durham Cathedral (one of the architectural marvels of the Christian tradition) holds a 1216 edition of Magna Carta, which is currently on display to mark the anniversary. It is a great privilege to lay one’s eyes on such a rich piece of history.
At the heart of Magna Carta is a statement of universality that all ‘free men’, including the king, were subject to the law:
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. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.
Although ‘free men’ then made up only a small minority of the population, and Magna Carta would be variously ignored, amended or superseded in later years, this first stating of the principle of English liberty changed everything.
To the extent that Magna Carta was created to constrain the monarch, it represented a devolution or decentralization of power, which is a highly topical subject in present-day Britain.
The political map of the United Kingdom is now sharply divided, with the Scottish nationalists holding almost everything above the Tweed and the Conservatives dominant in the south. The North-South divide, itself, however, is nothing new. Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South is just one nineteenth-century variation on a well-worn theme.
Travelling from London to Yorkshire and Durham, and thence into Scotland, the modern-day visitor immediately hears the change, in the accents, and feels the climatic change. And yet many economic and social changes in the past fifty years have led Britain in the opposite direction, towards greater uniformity. Gone from the North are the industries that once defined its separateness from the South: coal mining and shipbuilding. Around Durham, for instance, the landscape is no longer dominated by the mounds of coal slag older residents still remember; Durham today is as green as Kent.
Back to Magna Carta.
While the celebration of the charter’s anniversary might give encouragement to present-day de-centralizers, the greatest idea it upholds, for me, is the principle of universality: that all ‘free men’ (which we can translate into the contemporary ‘all members of a democracy’) are equal before the law. From this equality, this universality, we derive the benefits of open discourse, of free trade, freedom of worship and ‘the brotherhood of man’.
Magna Carta stands against modern trends that tend to atomize society through, among other things, the ascendency of single-interest group-ism that narrows interaction with others, a process increasingly enabled by the Internet and other new media.
I was reminded of this trend by a recent news report on the proliferation of so-called ‘safe spaces’ on British university campuses. The idea of the university, as classically conceived, is to promote the exchange of ideas and knowledge across barriers of class, race and gender. ‘Safe spaces’, on the other hand, are exclusive to specific ethnic or gender groups, where they may exchange ideas ‘safe’ from dissent or contradiction. The promoters of ‘safe spaces’ say they are needed to protect marginalized minorities from the dominant culture; in other words, the imputed intolerance of others is appropriated to justify reverse intolerance.
From ‘safe spaces’ to Scottish nationalism is not such a big leap.
As I have been travelling around, taking in the opinions of the people I meet, the ghost of Magna Carta has stalked the contemporary debate about representation and autonomy. How, for instance, can one reconcile the referendum result that clearly endorsed Scotland’s remaining inside the United Kingdom, with the extraordinary success of the Scottish Nationalist Party?
The answer partly, I think, is that Scots were nervous about economic separation from the union (notwithstanding that the SNP is now pressing for legislation that would give Scotland ‘economic autonomy’) and concerned at the way the referendum came to be perceived as an act of outright unfriendliness towards the English (contrary to the many family and business connections that people want to preserve).
The big vote for the SNP in the subsequent parliamentary elections was the natural corollary to this. If Scotland is to remain inside the union, it wants its own voice and, more to the point, power over its own destiny. Labor, I have been told so many times, has always been the party of Scotland. No longer is that the case. The poisoned legacy of Tony Blair, ‘New Labor’, the Iraq War, plus the failure of Ed Miliband’s team to muster candidates in Scotland who had the respect of a restive electorate, all contributed to the result. Labor is gone in Scotland for the foreseeable future.
But Scotland is not gone from the union. The forces of dissolution versus integration (or atomization versus university, as I have termed them earlier) are contending one against the other. It is a multifaceted contest and the likely outcome is far from clear. Under the June sunshine, amid the flocks of European tourists come to the Highlands for a milder form of summer, the hills and glens and the lochs remain for now firmly in place.
Walter Hamilton is visiting Scotland researching family history.