Amazon Deals

New at Amazon

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Mark Steyn on remembering the lessons from Magna Carta: The Field Where Liberty Was Sown

This 2015 post was written on the occasion of the 800th anniversary of the singing of Magna Carta; I no longer see this on Mark's website, so I've copied it here from an archive. Here's the original link - if it starts working again I'll delete this post and point to it.

The most important anniversary this year falls on Monday June 15th, marking the day, eight centuries ago, when a king found himself in a muddy field on the River Thames near Windsor Castle with the great foundational document of modern liberty under his nose and awaiting his seal. Here’s what I had to say about it earlier this year:

The world has come a long way since Magna Carta, and not always for the best. A couple of years back, testifying to the House of Commons in Ottawa about Canada’s (now repealed) censorship law, I said the following:
Section 13 is at odds with this country’s entire legal inheritance, stretching back to Magna Carta. Back then, if you recall–in 1215–human rights meant that the King could be restrained by his subjects. Eight hundred years later, Canada’s pseudo-human rights apparatchiks of the commission have entirely inverted that proposition, and human rights now means that the subjects get restrained by the Crown in the cause of so-called collective rights that can be regulated only by the state.
I liked it better the old way. Real rights are like Magna Carta: restraints on state power. Too many people today understand the word “rights” to mean baubles and trinkets a gracious sovereign bestows on his subjects – “free” health care, “free” community college, “safe spaces” from anyone saying anything beastly – all of which require a massive, coercive state regulatory regime to enforce.

But, to give it its full name, Magna Carta Libertatum (my italics – I don’t think they had ’em back then) gets it the right way round. It was in some respects a happy accident. In 1215, a bunch of chippy barons were getting fed up with King John. In those days, in such circumstances, the malcontents would usually replace the sovereign with a pliable prince who’d be more attentive to their grievances. But, having no such prince to hand, the barons were forced to be more inventive, and so they wound up replacing the King with an idea, and the most important idea of all – that even the King is subject to the law.

On this 800th anniversary, that’s a lesson worth re-learning. Restraints on state power are increasingly unfashionable among the heirs to Magna Carta: in America, King Barack decides when he wakes up of a morning what clauses of ObamaCare or US immigration law he’s willing to observe or waive according to royal whim; his heir, Queen Hillary, operates on the principle that laws are for the other 300 million Americans, not her. In the birthplace of Magna Carta, a few miles from that meadow at Runnymede, David Cameron’s constabulary leans on newsagents to cough up the names and addresses of troublesome citizens who’ve committed the crime of purchasing Charlie Hebdo.

The symbolism was almost too perfect when Mr Cameron went on TV with David Letterman, and was obliged to admit that he had no idea what the words “Magna Carta” meant. Magna Carta Libertatum: The Great Charter of Liberties. I’m happy to say Mr Cameron’s Commonwealth cousins across the Atlantic in Ottawa are more on top of things: One of the modestly heartening innovations of Stephen Harper’s ministry is that, when immigrants to Canada take the oath of citizenship, they’re now given among other things a copy of Magna Carta.

Why? Because everything flows therefrom – from England’s Glorious Revolution to the US Constitution and beyond. It’s part of the reason why the English-speaking world, in contrast to Continental Europe, has managed to sustain its freedoms across the generations – at least until now. As John Robson, my old colleague from Conrad Black’s Hollinger group, puts it:
All the rights we cherish, from due process of law to elected representatives, trace back to it. It has been assailed time and again and always defended. It’s why we have rights today. But that story needs to be told again and again or it will be lost and with it our freedom.
Security of the person, property rights, religious freedom, due process… The core animating principles of modern free societies began in that muddy field in Runnymede eight centuries ago. That’s why it’s the most important anniversary of the year: when the pampered, solipsistic beneficiaries of an 800-year inheritance start to lose the habits of liberty, only darkness lies ahead. Better to re-learn the old lessons while we still can.

1 comment:

  1. Except, at least in the Northern European nations, the deeper concept of an executive subject to the approval of a constituent assembly of some kind is older than Magna Carta, much older in fact. In Anglo-Saxon England, every king had to obtain approval of his title by the Witan. The Things of continental Germania and Scandinavia often promulgated and enforced law over and above the wishes of a particular leader or warlord who styled himself "King".

    There is more than a hint of Marxist historicism in the contemporary descriptions of Magna Carta. The barons at Runnymede didn't have the slightest interest in the concept of the "rule of law", but they were very much interested in the confirmation and extension of their noble privileges. Marxists love to transmute such impulses into justifications for the modern all-encompassing state through abstractions like "democratic participation" as a historical force which supposedly took a great leap forward on June 15, 1215 at Runnymede, England.