Only four clauses of the original 1215 version of Magna Carta remain on the statute book today. These are clauses 1 and 13, guaranteeing the liberties of the Church and the City of London respectively, and the famous clauses 39 and 40, which assure free and fair justice. Yet Magna Carta remains a document of key importance in English history, in the words of famous judge Lord Denning ‘the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot’.
So what is the significance of Magna Carta today?
Magna Carta is the cornerstone of our liberties, a source of inspiration for people all over the world seeking liberty, and a reminder of the importance of the rule of law in shaping human society. Runnymede, where the terms of the Charter were agreed eight hundred years ago, is for many a hallowed site. It was acquired for the nation in 1929 and is today owned and maintained by the National Trust. There are two monuments on the site, one, the American Bar Association Memorial of 1957 and the other, the John F. Kennedy Memorial of 1965.
Magna Carta and modern politics
Such is the power of the name ‘Magna Carta’, that in discussion today the term is often used very loosely as a synonym for a statement of rights and fundamental principles – as in ‘a Magna Carta for the countryside’. Many organisations have joined together on the occasion of the anniversary in 2015 to encourage discussion of how we understand liberty and how our liberties should be safeguarded in future. Magna Carta matters today because it is a symbol of liberty and a touchstone of good government. That is why Runnymede, the meadow in Surrey where its terms were agreed, is a place of pilgrimage for visitors from all over the world.
What is the future of Magna Carta?
In the second half of the twentieth century the championing of liberty broadened into a much larger campaign for human rights. In 1948 the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights was approved. Eleanor Roosevelt called this ‘an international Magna Carta for all men everywhere’. In 1953 Europe’s own Convention on Human Rights was approved, and article 6 of this affirmed Magna Carta’s principle that governments must follow the law in proceedings against their subjects. Although the British people were given access to the Commission on Human Rights, and the British government had been involved in drafting the Convention, the precise terms of that Convention were not incorporated into British law until the Human Rights Act of 1998. The questions of how human rights should be defined and which rights should be given protection in law are matters of much debate today.
Text by Professor Nigel Saul, Royal Holloway, University of London.