When you walk into the British Library and through the door to the Taking Liberties exhibition, the first thing you come face to face with is a copy of Magna Carta.
In some ways, it’s a special document to see. Only four copies survive in the world, and its fame makes it easily the star of this show.
But, having been written in 1215, it’s in Latin, in difficult handwriting, and mostly talks about obscure issues of the day like the right to gather firewood.
“Magna Carta itself is just an agreement between King John and some barons,” says exhibition curator Matthew Shaw. “It’s very much of its time. But what is important is the symbol it’s become – what people have done with it since.”
This little document, the closest thing Britain has to a written constitution, has been a rallying point throughout history for those who wanted to defend their rights from kings and tyrants.
Magna Carta – “the Great Charter” – was brought to the masses in a 1541 English translation by Elisabeth Redman, one of the first women printers.
In the English Civil War of the 17th century, the supporters of Parliament fought under the banner of Magna Carta, believing that it was an ancient law that even kings had to follow. Their flags bore the motto, “Magna Carta, Preserva Legem Domine” (preserve the law, O Lord).
By 1759, it was enshrined as the foundation of modern liberties in a finely printed volume by William Blackstone, and used by slaves who rose up in the 1780s.
More recently, at the 1964 trial where anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela was jailed for life for ‘sabotage’, he invoked Magna Carta in his defence of the idea of universal freedom for people of all races.
The most important clause in Magna Carta is clause 39.
It states that “no free man shall be seized or imprisoned... except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land”.
This is the origin of habeas corpus – the right not to be imprisoned without trial – which the government has been busy sacrificing in the name of “anti-terrorism”.
The idea that the right not to be banged up without charge is an ancient liberty has made Gordon Brown’s life much harder over the issue, as his opponents have been able to hit him over the head with Magna Carta.
“The exhibition is really about the power of the written word,” says Shaw. “It’s about how an idea can spread and be used by ordinary people against the powerful. The law can be a tool of the rich, but it can also be a tool of the masses.”
There’s more to this exhibition than detention without trial or even classic civil liberties issues like CCTV and ID cards – it broadens the issue much further, taking in civil rights and human rights, and the struggles for the vote and the welfare state.
But it is striking, as you stroll through history, how much is similar in the campaigns that have won change.
The Chartists, the Suffragettes, the civil rights movement and many more did not beg for reform from above – they organised the masses around their charters of demands, using the tools of radical newspapers, pamphlets, posters and protests.
One of the best sections is titled Freedom From Want, looking at the 19th century rise of trade unionism in Britain in the face of state suppression, and how it directly led to a mass workers’ party – the Labour Party – in the early 20th century, and the foundation of the welfare state after the Second World War.
The 1942 Beveridge Report, the founding document of the welfare state, sold over 600,000 copies at the time and was translated into other European languages to become part of the Allies’ war propaganda.
Hanging here is a copy of Labour’s famous 1945 election poster: “Help them finish their jobs! Give them homes and work! Vote Labour”.
In this context, though, it serves as nothing so much as a reminder of how, in the space of half a century, Labour has transformed itself into a party that now attacks the very reforms and liberties it was set up to promote.
Amazingly, Gordon Brown had the cheek to turn up and give a light-hearted speech at the exhibition’s press launch, treating the 42 day detention law as a bit of a joke and chastising the public for their “disengagement from democracy”.
Outside the exhibition, a large poster asks “People died for the right to vote, so why do more young people vote during the X Factor than the general election?” Perhaps it is because they have realised that real change for the better will not come from Parliament.
Taking Liberties will be at the British Library until 1 March 2009. Go to » www.bl.uk for more information