AGENDA: Magna Carta's Influence Lost in the Mists of Habeas Corpus; A Foundation Stone of Liberty and Independence, a Video Game or a Brave Hungarian Girl. Chris Game Analyses the Identity and Value of the Magna Carta and, like Tony Hancock, Asks - Did She Die in Vain?
Byline: Chris Game
It was no doubt prompted by David Davis' by election campaign coinciding with our university exam season, but I dreamt recently that one of my students, answering a question on the British constitution, thought the Magna Carta was a Korean video game.
Sadly, there is such a game, in fact several: complicated fantasy battles in which the humans have to acquire the Magna Carta super weapon in order to overcome the quaintly eared but physically superior Yason forces.
It's nothing remotely to do, of course, with the historic document setting detailed limits on royal power that was sealed by King John I at Runnymede, near Windsor, in 1215 - as I'm (reasonably) confident my student, when not featuring in my personal nightmare, knows full well.
It recalled, though, the famous Tony Hancock Twelve Angry Men episode in which Hancock lectures his fellow jurors: "Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?" We laugh because one thing we do know is that MC was no more the 'brave Hungarian peasant girl' of Hancock's imagination than a nerdy computer game.
It's when we come to what MC actually was and is that we become a bit hazier. Is it - was it ever - the metaphorical foundation stone of our constitution? Can it really have any relevance to even 42-day detention, let alone all those other issues - identity cards, the DNA database, CCTV cameras, the surveillance society - that David Davis hopes his election campaign will have us questioning more critically?
I should confess that I used to be an amateur MC sceptic. I'm no constitutional historian, but when respondents in a BBC History Magazine survey chose June 15 - the date on which MC was supposedly signed - as the day on which we should celebrate what Gordon Brown calls our shared British identity, it just seemed to me rather OTT.
Set aside its exclusion of Scotland, which then as now had its separate legal system. Wasn't MC itself both unoriginal and largely non-constitutional, of little relevance to ordinary citizens, with many of its provisions either ignored by the king or almost immediately dropped or amended - indeed, it isn't even a single document - and most of the rest long since obsolete? Surely its 21st century significance is essentially symbolic and as a tourist attraction for Americans?
I think now that I was overly dismissive. My factual knowledge was OK-ish, but it led me to an unwarranted conclusion - partly because I underrated MC's unique and continuing influence on international, as opposed to national, law: to the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, and of course for those Americans.
The most hackneyed of all MC jokes has an American tourist visiting Runnymede and, learning that this is where the barons forced King John to sign the MC, asks when the great event took place. 1215, the guide informs him. 'D'oh!', he replies, being a Simpsons fan, 'missed it by half an hour!'
In truth, however, Americans treat MC far more seriously than we do, and that fictitious tourist would probably have learned more about it at school than his English counterpart. Indeed, on the very day - June 12 - when Gordon Brown was forcing his 42-day detention Bill through the Commons, the US Supreme Court was invoking MC in its majority ruling that the present basis for the detention of prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay naval base was unconstitutional.
It's easy to see why Americans accord it such importance. Their revolution and the very creation of the US, the 1776 Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights immediately appended to the Constitution all derived their authority directly from the 'Great Charter'.
Like the Guantanamo prisoners, the colonists based their case on the 13th century document. George III, they alleged, had abused their rights in a whole series of ways that King John had explicitly forsworn: imposing taxes without consent, denying a free man's right to trial by jury ('the lawful judgement of his equals'), keeping them in place with a standing army, including foreign mercenaries. …