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The Magna Carta and the struggle for our legal rights

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The Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition is the perfect antidote to the Tories’ hypocritical attempts to claim it for their cause, writes Matt Foot
Issue 2447
Part of the Magna Carta in the British Library
Part of the Magna Carta in the British Library

The Tory attempt to hijack the Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary celebration was not a resounding success. 

The Tories brought forward the anniversary to allow the Global Law Summit—a pre election business fest. It was an audacious attempt by David Cameron to recast the charter through a summit where, “Britain continues to lead the way in promoting free enterprise, economic growth, and the rule of law around the world”.

The summit was the most rank hypocrisy. This government has removed access to justice from 600,000 people with the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. And Chris Grayling, the so-called “minister of justice”, is very close to decimating any quality in criminal defence. 

However most people saw through this charade. The Magna Carta has some strange clauses, such as on bridgemaking and fish-weirs. But it has none that say, “Thou shalt chargeth £1,750 per ticket to hear the richest congregation find a ‘valuable opportunity to meet and do business’.” 

Nor did it say, “Inviteth alleged tax avoider Lord Green to make a keynote speech”.

In contrast to the summit, I recommend a visit to the Magna Carta: Law, Liberty and Legacy exhibition at the British Library. The key clause of the charter  successfully curtailed the powers of despot King John. In doing so, it was establishing a revolutionary idea that no one should be denied access to the law—not even by the king.  

You can probably give the first room with different versions of the charter a miss. 


But from then on it’s fascinating. It shows how that principle was taken up and developed in many high points of struggle since. It was taken up in 1628 when the Petition of Right was drafted to limit the authority of King Charles I. 

The Chartists in the 1830s-40s and the Suffragettes in early 20th century who were demanding universal suffrage also took it up.

The establishment has always tried to promote the charter for its own causes, such as justifying colonialism. But the irony is that those fighting for independence drew upon it to demand democracy. 

Most famously, Nelson Mandela did so in his three hour speech at the Rivonia Trial in 1964. But rights are not protected by some ancient law—they constantly have to be fought for. 

We will never be equal legally while society is divided economically.

However, the fight for equality is wrapped up in the fight for equality before the law. That tradition was represented at the Justice Alliance campaign’s relay for rights in defence of legal aid. The relay walked 42 miles from Runnymede, Surrey where the charter was signed, to deliver Magna Carta to the wretched Global Law Summit. The wonderful actor Maxine Peake delivered its words.

It said, “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 other way.

“Nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. 

“To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right to justice”.

Matt Foot is a criminal defence solicitor and co-founder of Justice Alliance

 The British Library, London NW1 2DB. Until Tuesday 1 September. Tickets £12 and free for under 18s. 


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