15 Jun 2015

Magna Carta was about money – it wasn’t about a ‘law for all’

The central point about what King John signed up to in 1215 was that he – as a king – was not above the law. The second central fact is that about two months after signing up at Runnymede, he contacted the Pope to take it all back, via papal bull, and the Pope duly obliged, calling the document “illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people”.

It would take John’s death and his son Henry III and another decade for Magna Carta to be fully reinstated.

So you have to take both facts together. The year 1215 is impressively early in the political life of our species to attempt something as obvious but clearly difficult as putting everyone – royalty included – under the law.

Royalty and every other shade of absolutists and dictators have similarly refused to come quietly under the law ever since, and many still do so to this day.

Centuries later, the “roi soleil” attitude of absolute monarchy so pervaded French culture and society that it took the sans culottes and Madame Guillotine to reset matters in the revolution. And that recalibration resulted in doing away with the monarchy altogether.

Magna Carta was never about that. It was never very magna in the first place. Principally it was all about money, not shifting power – a bunch of nobility fed up with tax hikes under King John was the motive, not some overarching and high-minded need to make the law work for all in theory.

Magna Carta at 800: what is the ‘great charter’?

So there was no great democratic intent – which is pretty obvious since there has been no great democratic shift in some ways. The monarchy in Britain still shows, occasionally, that  it does not like the law applying to it,  as it applied to us. Look no further than the years of wiggling from Prince Charles, as the heir to the throne fought against having his letters to various government departments being disclosed.

The aristocracy is still very much in place across the UK – as is the monarchy, of course. If you want to see how little matters have changed since it was signed, then look no further than the fundamental of land.

Very few  people still own very large swathes of land across the UK, and it is a pattern that would be recognised instantly by those barons who forced Magna Carta upon King John. And they would no doubt heartily approve of it.

That silent, unpoken reality gives the lie to all of the flummery you will hear today about Magna Carta and what it represents.

Of course, the attempt to place royalty under universal rule of law was a historic and extraordinary mission and hitherto all but unthinkable – but the move was from pragmatic self-interest to defend the status quo as much as alter it.

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