Still Serfs

Traditionally, left-leaning governments have been more sympathetic to human rights than the men of the right. That picture was turned upside-down in the UK by the last Labour government, which under the guise of protecting the populace, introduced or planned many of the legal measures more usually associated with the police state. While smiling.

The new coalition government, with a Conservative majority and helpless Liberal Democrat appendage, might be expected to continue the “reforms” to our freedoms, but evidence is thin so far. They have scrapped the identity card scheme, although I think more because the plan was enormously costly and badly thought-out, rather than by any concerns about rights or freedoms.

But the current Lord Chancellor is involving himself in the launch of the birthday celebrations for the signing of Magna Carta, which will be 800 years old in June 2015. Personally, I’ve never celebrated a birthday for more than a couple of days, so four and a half years seems excessive, but then I’m a little younger.

The charter arose from a dispute between King John and his nobles, and being heavily outgunned, the King had no choice but to agree to strict constraints on arbitrary royal power, and to concede that “free men” had certain unalienable rights. I suspect that the inclusion of non-aristocrats was largely accidental, but nonetheless, Magna Carta became part of the body of English law. In a country with no written constitution, the provisions of Magna Carta provided a legal basis for some basic human rights.

Oh, up until about 1828, when Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel introduced several Acts intended to reform criminal law, but which necessitated repeal of clauses of Magna Carta. That breached the flood gates, and they continued to repeal parts here and there, so that by today, only three of the 37 clauses are still law.

Magna CartaHere’s what they say:

I. FIRST, We have granted to God, and by this our present Charter have confirmed, for Us and our Heirs for ever, that the Church of England shall be free, and shall have all her whole Rights and Liberties inviolable.
We have granted also, and given to all the Freemen of our Realm, for Us and our Heirs for ever, these Liberties under-written, to have and to hold to them and their Heirs, of Us and our Heirs for ever.

IX. THE City of London shall have all the old Liberties and Customs which it hath been used to have. Moreover We will and grant, that all other Cities, Boroughs, Towns, and the Barons of the Five Ports, and all other Ports, shall have all their Liberties and free Customs.

XXIX. NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.

It’s hard to see how the second sentence of article 1 can still be in force if our governments have progressively removed almost all of the “Liberties under-written”. The first sentence, confirming “freedoms” of the Church, and the second remaining clause, number 9, doing the same for London and towns and ports, don’t seem very relevant today.

But that last one, clause 29, is still in force. Apart from the caveat that it appears to allow its measures to be over-ridden by “the law of the land”, and thus may not protect us from unjust laws, its existence still seems to be a cause for celebration. Let’s hope it still applies in 2015.

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