It’s been clear for months that Covid has shifted our political perspectives. But who, honestly, could have guessed 12 months ago that among the pandemic’s various casualties would be that foremost expression of political liberties, Magna Carta? It wasn’t very long ago that the Left regarded it as totemic. Yet today, it is increasingly seen as almost Trumpian, a piece of populist authority-denying rhetoric.
Clearly, something very odd has happened. Consider, for instance, the events of the last week. On Good Friday, the Christian community reflects on Jesus being taken before the Roman Authorities, charged with setting himself up as an alternative king. This year, the Polish Roman Catholic Church of Christ the King in Balham had the ingenious idea of incorporating a real police raid into the liturgy. The police broke up the gathering of Christian worshippers, rather effectively making the point that even in the most apparently benign of political circumstances, Christians derive their authority not from the law of the land but from a king who is not of this world.
Unfortunately, of course, it wasn’t a creative piece of liturgy. Someone had phoned the police to complain. We do not know if his name was Judas. But breakup the service they did. “This is an unlawful gathering,” announced the boys and girls in blue, threatening to fine those gathered in prayer. Despite the fact that — as images of the service clearly showed — most of the congregation were social distancing, wearing masks and had pre-booked their attendance, the police closed down the service on one of the holiest days of the year.
It was clearly not close to being a proportionate response. And the church was right to be furious. The right freely to worship is an ancient freedom that ought never to be messed with so casually. And so, for the first time in my life, I phoned a lawyer in advance of opening up for the Easter weekend. “It is guidance”, she explained, “not law”. As long as I had done a risk assessment, I would be covered. (It’s worth noting, of course, that the Polish church had done precisely that — but it didn’t stop the police.)
I also posted the first section of Magna Carta on a pane of glass on the front of my church door the evening before our Easter service. We are only a few miles from Balham, and we all wondered if the police would be breaking up more church services. The first clause of Magna Carta reads thus:
“First, that we have granted to God, and by this present charter have confirmed for us and our heirs in perpetuity, that the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired. That we wish this so to be observed.”
As it would happen, the police didn’t show up to complain. Instead, and far more peculiarly, the only hostility I experienced happened after I shared an image of the poster on Twitter. “Magna Carta is only quoted by ignorant ideologues,” was one of the more polite responses.
What particularly surprised me, though, was that the pile-on wasn’t confined to the usual vulgar suspects. In fact, a number of the critical comments were from medievalist historians, pointing out — often in quite a superior tone — how the foundational text no longer applies; that it was rescinded by the Pope just a few weeks after it was published. And then there were the lawyers, informing me that the text has no legal force. “Bless,” replied one prominent lawyer and blogger, patting me on the head, patronisingly.
Now I must say that, when I stuck the poster to my church’s window, I wasn’t aware quite how contentious a subject Magna Carta has become. Since lockdown, some business owners, including a Bradford hairdresser, have been posting clause 61 on their shop windows to warn off the police; others then accused them of populist numskullery.
Back in January, the Guardian even published a piece claiming that “in the far-Right spaces of social media in particular, Magna Carta is invoked as a digital rallying cry”. Apparently, it continued, Magna Carta is a “delusion” which “converts discontent into a dangerous politics”. It seems that, without me noticing, Magna Carta has become a kind of Right-wing meme, a whole new frontier in our never-ending culture wars.
But there is something very strange about all of this. How did the Left fall out of love with Magna Carta? Back in 2007, a Guardian article attacking the 90-day detention period for suspected terrorists was headlined “Protecting Magna Carta”. Indeed, only in 2015, at the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, Left-wing commentators were falling over themselves to laud the charter as the foundation of not just English freedom, but the very fount of human rights themselves.
Interestingly, back then it was Right-wing people such as David Starkey who banged on about how “Magna Carta is a great theme for guff”, and progressive human rights lawyers like Dinah Rose QC who disagreed. “I don’t think it is ‘irrelevant guff’,” she said at the time. “I think it is very important. Not for what it meant in 1215 but for the symbol that it became and for the significance that it acquired as a part of the common law.”
Rose is right. Little of Magna Carta remains on the statute book — though, technically, the first section I quoted still does. But its significance has little to do with its current force in law, and everything to do with the fact that, especially from the 17th century onwards, it became a kind of rallying cry against perceived despotism. The Levellers brandished it against the king, the “People’s Charter” of the Chartists took its name from Magna Carta, and Eleanor Roosevelt, credited as the inspiration behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, referring it to the “international Magna Carta for all mankind”. Bless!
Even hard-nosed lawyers think it important. Lord Denning, former Master of the Rolls, called it “the greatest constitutional document of all times — the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”. Former Lord Chief Justice and Master of the Rolls Lord Bingham said “it can plausibly claim to be the most influential secular document in the history of the world”.
So how on Earth did today’s Lefties come to think of Magna Carta as some kind of Right-wing bogeyman? On one level, it’s not so surprising that given the mess the Left now finds itself in over their uncritical enthusiasm for lockdown, it has now turned on one of the most powerfully symbolic expressions of resistance to over-weaning executive power. Add to this that dreary Enlightenment propaganda, now taken as gospel by many liberal progressives, that anything medieval is as relevant to contemporary life as praying to a dead saint’s fingernail, and all the conditions for a political upending are in place.
And so, what was until recently a Right-wing position, exemplified by David Starkey, has flipped into a Left-wing one, with liberal elites sniggering at the ignorance of thick Bradford hairdressers and Polish Christians for seeking to claim some very old and popularly understood freedoms. The world has turned upside down, and not in a good way. As the comedian Tony Hancock famously put it: “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?”
Yet Magna Carta is not some kind of magic amulet that can be used to ward off the police from the church door. It has long been a rallying cry for those who want to assert some basic freedoms, including the freedom to worship.
Back in March, the Scottish courts ruled that its Government’s church shut-down was unlawful, exceeding their legal authority. I do not claim any sort of authority on the law. But I do know when a government has crossed a line with regard to the freedom of religion — and police closing down a Good Friday service is precisely that. I will never seek the permission of Caesar to celebrate the Holy Mysteries. That’s why, for a while at least, Magna Carta will stay taped on my church door.