Influencing such diverse subjects as International Human Rights law, the speeches of Nelson Mandela and even the title of one of Jay-Z’s hip-hop albums, the Magna Carta is one the most inspirational statements in the history of democracy. Now read an extract from Dan Jones' new book on the Great Charter.
Extract from Magna Carta by Dan Jones:
Men and women all over the world continue to venerate Magna Carta as a founding text of Western liberal democracy, not always with completely convincing results. In 2014, for example, Prime Minister David Cameron promised, in a speech, to make every school child in the United Kingdom study Magna Carta, saying that ‘the remaining copies of that charter may have faded, but its principles shine as brightly as ever, and they paved the way for democracy, the equality, the respect and the laws that make Britain’. In fact, precisely the opposite is true: many of the remaining copies of the charter are in good condition, while most of their principles are now obsolete, and the clauses have nothing to do with democracy, equality or respect. But this sort of political platitude is commonplace, and it speaks to the myth of Magna Carta that has developed during the last 800 years. At times that myth can have great political potency: Magna Carta’s ancient proclamations against detention without trial were instrumental, in 2008, in defeating the Labour government’s Counter-Terrorism Bill, which sought to extend the period for which a person could be imprisoned without charges from 28 to 42 days. At other times, it is used in ways that are rather confused.
This confusion tends to be greatest when Magna Carta is invoked for causes beside the more general ideas of liberal democracy or freedom from tyranny. A ‘Magna Carta for the Web’ is regularly called for now, to challenge both official (and often covert) monitoring and surveillance of online communications and also the rising power of supra-national organizations – Google, Facebook, Apple, and so on – which are thought to be exercising new and unchecked control over private data, freedom of information and personal reputations. There have been calls in recent years for a Magna Carta for disabled people, for medical banking, for American coal miners and for Filipino call-centre workers. Most amusingly, in 2013 Magna Carta even found its way into a mainstream popular culture in the in the title of one of Jay-Z’s hip-hop albums, Magna Carta Holy Grail, which sold more than 2 million copies in the United States during the months following its release. Quite what the phrase ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ is supposed to suggest remains obscure - perhaps the artist’s desire to rewrite the rules of commercial activity in the music industry. But look past the bathos and we can reflect that it is extraordinary that the phrase ‘Magna Carta’ has gained such popular currency across the world that it can be co-opted with apparent seriousness into the posturing and sloganeering of mainstream American pop music.
In Magna Carta, Dan Jones explores the 800 year history of resurrection, mutation and imitation from which the potent ideology of the charter was born. His chronological approach exposes the disparity between the intentions of the original document, and the numerous ways it has been used, or misused, in the intervening years.
Dan Jones is a historian, journalist and the bestselling author of Summer of Blood, The Plantagenets and The Hollow Crown. He is the presenter of Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty: The Plantagenets (currently showing on Channel 5). He lives in London with his wife and children.