16 March 2015
Let’s apply some hard history to the 13th century charter governing the obligations flowing between King John and his barons, or at least read the thing (translation here). So says Lord Sumption in a fascinating address to Friends of the British Library on 9 March.
All sides jockey for position at the Magna Carta shrine, but its significance is entirely due to the myth-making tendencies of the seventeenth century politician and judge Edward Coke. Since he plucked the charter quite clean of its historical context, the claims made in its name are extraordinary and downright self-serving:
In his column in the Daily Telegraph, Peter Oborne recently described the European Convention on Human Rights as a “document which entrenches the principles of Magna Carta in international law.” Others have come forward to suggest that the partial abrogation in 2014 of a legal aid system which was first created in 1949 was contrary to Magna Carta. Recently, a Global Law Summit in London, which was essentially an international marketing opportunity for British lawyers, described itself on its website as “grounding the legacy and values of Magna Carta in a firmly 21st Century context.
Sumption is not against liberty of the subject, nor motherhood and apple pie, nor even international marketing opportunities for lawyers, but he does have a problem with “the distortion of history to serve an essentially modern political agenda.”
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