On Thursday afternoon I visited the exhibition of the four remaining copies of Magna Carta in the House of Lords. There was a sense of reverence in the Robing Room as we peered through the glass cabinets at the small and powerful writing of the scribes 800 years before. I felt pride that our country had expressed and fought over such powerful ideas of liberty so long ago. I also felt a sense of how fragile freedom and honest government can be, recalling the many arguments, Parliamentary battles and wars that were fought in the centuries that followed to develop and cherish some of the ideals embodied in the Charter. King John, after all, overthrew Magna Carta not long after signing it.
The most enduring core of Magna Carta revolves around two big ideas. The first was that those who paid the taxes had the right to be consulted and have their grievances taken seriously before approving a new tax levy.
* (12) No ‘scutage’ or ‘aid’ may be levied in our kingdom without its general consent, unless it is for the ransom of our person, to make our eldest son a knight, and (once) to marry our eldest daughter. For these purposes only a reasonable ‘aid’ may be levied. ‘Aids’ from the city of London are to be treated similarly.
* (14) To obtain the general consent of the realm for the assessment of an ‘aid’ – except in the three cases specified above – or a ‘scutage’, we will cause the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, and greater barons to be summoned individually by letter. To those who hold lands directly of us we will cause a general summons to be issued, through the sheriffs and other officials, to come together on a fixed day (of which at least forty days notice shall be given) and at a fixed place. In all letters of summons, the cause of the summons will be stated. etc
This fundamental principle was taken up by successive Parliaments, which prized highly their right to be consulted, and later their right to decide, what taxes would be levied.
The second big idea was that everyone should be free of guilt and free from arrest or detention by government, unless good reason was shown and they were afforded a fair trial of their case. People today mainly praise clauses 39 and 40, but 38 is also central.
(38) In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.
+ (39) 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 way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.
+ (40) To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice. -( See more at: http://www.bl.uk/magna-carta/articles/magna-carta-english-translation)
Today the threat to our ancient liberties comes not from a tyrannical monarch or even from a power hungry UK government, but from our entanglements with the EU. The principle that we have redress before approving taxes is damaged or broken by the levies made on us by the EU. These are often retrospective and are required whether we are happy or not with EU policy. No change of government can unilaterally abate the EU taxes.
The principle that people cannot be detained without trial could also be damaged by the different justice systems of parts of the EU, where innocent UK citizens could be detained under a European Arrest Warrant and not treated as the heirs to Magna Carta would expect.
In these respects Je suis Magna Carta.