Legal Systems Of The World

How the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta could be used to remove all our liberties

Magna Carta
One of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, held by the British Library

Warnings from civil rights groups, that increased security comes at the cost of liberty, have become such a boring old cliché most people just ignore them. It seems so obvious that the only way to combat terrorism is to  increase security and any liberties we might lose along the way are just like the eggs you have to break if you want to make on omelette. What the leading scientist, newspaper editor and founding father of America, Benjamin Franklin, had to say about it back in 1755 – that those who are willing to trade liberty for safety deserve neither and will lose both – makes so little sense to us now we don’t give it a second thought.

What does grab our attention and puts us all on Red Alert are threats to our own well-being. Nagging problems that put us ill-at-ease, as they used to say, or ill-nesses and dis-eases as we say now. The natural reaction to a nagging problem is to find a remedy or solution: if not a full-blown cure then some kind of relief from the pain at least.

Being more imaginative and adventurous than the average ape, Homo Sapiens have discovered all kinds of remedies to our most common ills since we first appeared in South-West Africa about 200,000 years ago.

Take aches, pains and fevers for example. Most of us suffer from them sometime, and there’s no reason to suppose our anatomically identical African ancestors suffered any differently.

Being more curious, or just more restless and more easily bored than the average ape, we’re not happy just to eat bananas. We’re always on the look out for new things for lunch. And being smarter, or just better organized and less driven by instinct and habit than the average chimp up a banana tree, we tend to look for patterns which might reveal the causes of the effects we experience. So it’s likely that, over the past 200,000 years, lots of people would have tried nibbling on a bit of willow bark and noticed it gave relief from all kinds of ills.

Salix alba
White willow (Salix alba), a natural source of salicylic acid

The discovery of the active ingredient of Aspirin, salicylic acid (from the Latin salix meaning willow tree),  is generally credited to a member of the  Oxford University set, as so many things tend to be these days. But the medicinal properties of willow were well known more than 2,000 years before, when the founding father of modern medicine and inventor of the doctor’s oath, Hippocrates, wrote about using willow tea to reduce pain and fever. And that knowledge wasn’t limited to learned men of letters in Ancient Greece. The Cherokee and other Native Americans had used it for centuries without ever having  met a Greek.

About the same time that Benjamin Franklin was pondering the relationship between security and liberty, discovering positive and negative electricity and publishing terrorist literature fomenting revolt against the British government, the Reverend Edward Stone, a learned man of letters from Oxford, was wandering through a meadow in Chipping Norton, as the learned David Cameron, Rebekah and Charlie Brooks, Elisabeth Murdoch, Matthew Freud and the rest of the Chipping Norton set probably still do today.

Absent mindedly nibbling on a piece of willow bark, the Right Reverend  was struck by its bitter taste, which reminded him of quinine, a well-known treatment for malaria extracted from the bark of the Peruvian cinchona tree, which led him to wonder if willow might have medicinal properties, which eventually resulted in his letter to the President of The Royal Society, Lord Macclesfield in 1763, announcing his discovery of the therapeutic effects of willow in relieving fevers and pain.

In truth, the learned Reverend hadn’t discovered anything to write home about. What he had done was draw the attention of the ruling elite to one of the many things their feudal ancestors had buried and forgotten during their rule in the Dark Ages; that only lived on in old wives’ tales, recipes and witch’s brews amongst the kind of ignorant peasants the likes of Lord Macclesfield would never have had round for lunch and would probably have had hung drawn and quartered if they’d tried.

So it isn’t the educated men of letters in their studies and laboratories in Oxbridge and The Royal Society who should be taking the credit for discovering such an important remedy, it’s the common people in their kitchens and around camp-fires, whose genius and wisdom the learned elite in the Church and in the elite universities they founded had been suppressing for the best part of a thousand years.

Of the very many things their feudal Lordships and Papal masters in the Holy Roman Empire tried to bury and forget in the Dark Ages, perhaps the most significant is the natural or god-given rights and liberties of the common people, or ignorant peasants as they preferred to call them then.

When the unusually cruel tyrant King John, a bigger villain than the Sheriff of Nottingham, if you can believe a word the terrorist Robin Hood said, sat down in another meadow, on the banks of the Thames at Runnymede near Windsor on 15 June 1215, to seal under oath the Magna Carta Libertatum, or Great Charter of the Liberties of England, it wasn’t done out of the kindness of his heart. It was under extreme duress after he’d done everything he could think of to kick the can down the road with lengthy negotiations, or public inquiries as we might call them these days.

King Johns seals Magna  Carta at Runnymede
King John seals Magna Carta at Runnymede on 15th June 1215, from Cassell’s History of England (1902)

It was only after the common people had run out of patience and raised a terrorist-extremist-fundamentalist “Army of God” to march on London, capturing Lincoln and Exeter along the way, that King John had no alternative but to give the peasants back the natural, inalienable, God-given rights that Jesus and his Christian Fundamentalists had won for them a thousand years previously, and the ruling elite had been trying to steal from them ever since.

This is the important bit, the moral of the story if you like. Those fundamental rights weren’t given freely to the common people by a ruling elite, they were forced out of them by terrorists at the point of a very big knife. So it’s no surprise that the ruling elite might want to stop common peasants from carrying knives or weapons of any sort. And no surprise either that the best way of get away with that is to give the peasants the kind of headache for which the learned men of letters from Oxbridge already have a remedy sitting on the shelf.

There’s no doubt that commoners carrying knives can result in a number of innocent deaths, but you have to balance that against the number who die from accidents, which is twenty times worse at least. But no worries, just make sure that the next time there’s a knife crime it’s top of the News at Six and Huw Edwards looks like one of his closest friends has been murdered. Then run the interview where the grieving parents of the innocent victim are calling on the government to change the law. Two or three news bulletins like that will give the peasants such a big enough headache they’ll be marching on the streets demanding the government ban knives. Oh, and if we really have to balance that with the much bigger number killed every year from falls, poisoning, suffocation, drowning and road accidents just make sure we do it on Newsnight when most of the commoners have switched off.

Having successfully persuaded the common people to demand the government removes their natural, inalienable, God-given right to bear arms, enshrined in the Bill of Rights of 1689, it’s not difficult to imagine what would happen next. How about taking away all the rights King John was forced to give them in the Magna Carta in one fell-swoop? That would be ideal. So how do we do that exactly? Well, by persuading the common people that the Magna Carta and 1689 Bill of Rights are archaic, barbarous relics badly in need of updating.

But how can we get away with something so obvious? The common people are better educated and more intelligent than they’ve ever been, surely some of them will notice?

Not necessarily, not if we hide it in plain sight right underneath their noses, like we’ve done with everything else. They might have had more education and certificates than they can shake a stick at, and they might think that makes them smarter than the average ignorant peasant on a cabbage patch, but how many of them have ever read the Magna Carta? How many understand Magna Carta’s significance in common law? How many even know what common law is? How many care? How many can concentrate on anything for more than 5 minutes anyway? How many understand that, just by swapping a few words around, we can easily turn black into white? By the time they’ve figured out what that’s all about we’ll have them back in the Dark Ages for another thousand years of feudalism and slavery.

So when the BBC and the rest of the mainstream media start the build up to the 2015 Election and the celebration of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, watch very carefully how exactly they portray it. If they focus on how a rebellion by the common people, currently known as terrorists, forced an evil tyrant to give back the rights that had been stolen from them, then we commoners have nothing to worry about. But if they give more prominence to the view that the Magna Carta is 800 years out of date and needs to be fixed, then watch out! This could be the Trojan Horse concealing the forces necessary to take over the government and steal every liberty, every natural right and every piece of property the common people have struggled for the past 2,000 years to possess.

To understand how easily that could be done, first we need to understand the significance of Magna Carta and Common Law in what is politely known as ‘the protracted historical process’ that led to the establishment of the rule of Law, as opposed to the rule of Parties, Parliaments, Monarchs or Dictators, first in England and then around the the world.

Legal Systems Of The World
Legal Systems of the World: Civil Law (blue), Common Law (light brown), Bijuridical – mixed civil and common (dark brown), Islamic Sharia Law (orange)

In a nutshell, Common Law is the law made up over the centuries from decisions made by juries of common people, good and true, which evolves to meet the changing needs of the common people. Judges are legal experts who can advise juries and the legislature on the technicalities of the juries’ decisions, but they can’t dictate those decisions. In other words, Common Law is the law the common people make for themselves as they progress, as opposed to having dictated to them by Acts of Parliament, Congress, Presidents, Monarchs, Emperors, Dictators or any other kind of Statute of the State.

Which might explain why England and America were once considered to be the freest countries on earth and why, if we are losing that enviable status now, we need to look at how the law has been progressively changed over the years to push the judgement of the common people further to the back of the law book shelf.

What traditional, fundamentalist Conservatives, Republicans and Monarchists from the Tea Party to the British Constitution Group share in common isn’t that they’re far-right reactionaries, nasty evil fascist bully boys or just plain ignorant and stupid. That’s just the way they’ve been demonized by those with their own axes to grind, but that doesn’t mean they’re all like that. If anything it’s the exact opposite. This is the paradox at the heart of British socialism that many Labour supporters still don’t seem to get. How is it that the first Labour MPs to enter Parliament in 1906 acknowledge that by far their greatest influence had been John Ruskin, who described himself and his father as ‘violent Tories of the old school‘?

John Ruskin painted by the Pre-Raphaelite artist, John Everett Millais, standing at Glenfinlas, Scotland, 1853–54
John Ruskin painted by the Pre-Raphaelite artist, John Everett Millais, standing at Glenfinlas, Scotland, 1853–54

Ruskin wouldn’t be such a  conundrum if we hadn’t been led to believe that the only way extreme, fundamentalist, far-right and far-left can meet is in the fascist, totalitarian dictatorships of psychopaths like Hitler, Stalin or Mao.

But what that nightmare spectre obscures is the realisation there is another way which is the opposite of all those things. As long as the law is laid down by an elite at the top and dictated to the common people below, we can only choose between one kind of fascist, totalitarian, dictatorship or another. It’s only when the rule of law is evolved naturally, from the bottom up, through the everyday decisions of common people making up their own minds empirically from their own experiences, that the rights and liberties of the common people can truly reign supreme.

That ‘protracted historical process’ that led us out of the medieval tyranny of the Dark Ages, through the Scottish and American Enlightenments to the modern liberal-democratic state and the freedom and liberty of the individual, is the process that the War on Terror succeeded in reversing and may now threaten to extinguish completely.

One of the major milestones along the road out of the Dark Ages was laid down by one of the most influential thinkers of the Enlightenment, John Locke, also known as the Father of Classical Liberalism, who established the fundamental constitutional principle enshrined in the Bill of Rights of 1689, that the common people are at liberty to do whatever they want as long as it does not infringe on the liberties of others, but the government can do nothing that has not been authorised by law.

John Locke
John Locke

As radical and incredible as that might seem, that’s  still the rule of law as it stands in England today, in sharp contrast to the predominantly Civil, Roman or Napoleonic Law across the rest of Europe, where liberties are not inalienable rights that cannot be removed by the state but rather rights that the state chooses to grant to the common people.

This is the fundamental difference between the law of England and the rest of the European Union, which very few of the common people in Britain seem aware of and none of the three Oxbridge men of letters available for selection to lead us after the 2015 election seem vaguely concerned about at all.

Maybe that’s because it’s already done-and-dusted and the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta will give them the opportunity they need to finish the job once and for all? If they can only persuade the common people to demand that the government updates the ancient and outmoded Magna Carta of 1215 and Bill of Rights of 1689 with a brand spanking new crisp Bill of Rights, then by the time the peasants realise they’ve  had all their natural, inalienable rights and liberties stolen from them and replaced with only the rights the government wants to give them, they’ll be laughing like Tony Blair all the way to the Caymans on billionaire yachts bought by selling the common people’s rights to houses, pensions, savings, property, health and social care to the elite 1 percent, who already own half the country anyway.

But how could they possibly do that?

If we can just make sure that, when the BBC covers the Magna Carta celebrations, nobody mentions that if King John had his way he would have had the extremists who forced him at knife point into sealing the Magna Carta on the water-meadow at Runnymede, hung from the nearest tree for terrorism and treason. Something like that could easily frighten the horses.

And you know that bit in Magna Carta – what is it? Article 61? – where it says that if the government doesn’t correct any transgressions within 40 days ‘the community of the whole land shall distrain and distress us in every way they can, namely, by seizing castles, lands, possessions, and in such other ways as they can‘. What is that exactly if it’s not an incitement to terrorism? Just make sure that whenever we’re talking about Magna Carta we keep the screens and headlines filled with stuff about medieval Knights and Barons and we won’t need to tell the punters the whole thing is in serious need of updating – they’ll be telling us! Caymans here we come!

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