by John Sillett
On the 800th anniversary this year of the signing by King John of the Great Charter.
We are told the Magna Carta is the foundation of the rule of law in England. This is partly true. The Charter was a truce between a power obsessed and ruthless king and his power obsessed and ruthless supporters who thought he had overstepped the mark. All law represents a truce between contending forces in society.
The Charter was nothing really new in that it formalised various constitutional, legal, and religious laws and rights accumulated over previous centuries. King John was a brutal, murderous and thieving King in a brutal, murderous and thieving age, but he pushed his Earls, Barons, and Knights too far. Desperate to regain his recently lost lands in France he confiscated property, took hostages for ransom and ran a protection racket in order to get funding for an invasion army. For this he was called to account.
Many of the clauses or chapters as they were called in the Charter, were in fact longstanding grievances. However the conditions arose in 1215 for these to appear openly and in this one document they were negotiated between the King and his rebellious Barons. The signing took place at Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines. The event must have resembled a circus, with tents and a big top for the King.
The British judiciary still has the appearance of a circus.
Arcane costumes, odd wigs, some clowns, acrobatic barristers standing words on their head, judges juggling precedents, defendants walking a procedural tightrope. The greatest show on earth. However ordinary people’s access to justice through legal aid is being cut, and it is litigation by the rich and big business that the big city law firms are interested in. Indeed, solicitors, in an unprecedented move, recently went on strike against cuts in the legal aid budget.
It’s important to place the signing of the Magna Carta in its historical context. Most people were desperately poor and often hungry. Democracy did not exist. A large slice of society then were not even free, possibly as much as fifty percent were economically and legally bound to a local overlord. They were not bought and sold as say Roman slaves, but they were tied to manorial lands. Feudalism was a rigid hierarchical society where it was difficult to move between the classes.
If you had a particular skill you could become an artisan craftsman. Merchants did some trade in towns, but it was the clergy and nobility that governed locally. The Charter stated taxation was to be raised by the consent of the nation, except only a few of the baronial elite had any say over this. Any taxation they paid was raised by terrorising the peasantry and artisans anyway. The Charter refers to liberties granted to the free-men, for example trial by one’s peers. Free woman existed under the terms of the Charter but they were subject to men. Women in society at that time were placed in the ‘protection’ (i.e. subservient) of men — either a father, a husband or the local lord. Women did not serve on juries so were tried by men. Women could not be outlawed, because they did not have a place in Law. The Charter did not change Feudal relations one jot. The unfree had no rights whatsoever. They could be killed by their lord completely out of hand for the most trivial of reasons.
Only the already powerful were accepted to have any rights and this is where today’s celebration of Magna Carta completely fails in demonstrating the truth of the document.
Within months of the Charter being signed it was quashed, by none other than the pope, who King John had persuaded that he had only signed it under duress. King John in turn was quashed by the Barons who chose another King, Louis, eldest son of the King of France. However John’s son, Henry III, reclaimed the throne, accepted what his father rejected in the Charter, and reissued it in 1225. Before the great peasant’s rebellion in 1381, peasant leaders had tried to use the courts to argue serfdom was illegal. Not surprisingly they failed.
The rebellion and other minor uprisings scared the ruling class so much that they dare not punish the mass of rebels. The leaders though felt the full force of the state against them. Treason was the crime and the punishment death, but serfdom had its days numbered and soon serfs were allowed to buy their freedom.
The extension of rights that we take for granted now, although some are being eroded — the right of free speech, the right of a free press, the right of workers to organise together, the right to vote, the right to strike — have all been won by an almighty struggle by ordinary people with much sacrifice. The law has always defended the property of the rich and powerful. Landowners were allowed to enclose the common lands and deny their tenants the means to subsist. To resist was treason.
The courts, the military, the police, the civil service tops, the church, and the media have always used every power they possess to defend the interests of the rich.
Early trade unionists were deported to penal colonies. Recently Trade Unions have been refused the right to strike by the courts, often to ensure the employers have more time to organise against the strike. Peaceful protesters against education cuts, some barely teenagers, were brutally treated by riot police when all they wanted to do was express an opinion. It’s only when every position of authority in society is elected and representatives are subject to instant recall, will the tug of war between wealth and privilege on one side be defeated by the democracy of the overwhelming majority in society on the other side.
John Sillett is a member of Norfolk People’s Assembly and Left Unity Norwich.