Opinion: It’s not time to celebrate yet – the Magna Carta is under systematic attack from an intrusive state, says Matt Gaw
- Credit: PA
This year has seen countless events marking the historic signing of the Magna Carta.
Last week, all across Suffolk and north Essex there were parades marking the region’s links to the calfskin document that underpins modern democracy and human rights.
Suffolk is rightfully proud that 800 years ago it sent its rebellious barons to the boggy meadow in Runnymede to force King John to set down the foundations for the supremacy of law and push back against a Leviathan state populated by a powerless public.
The celebrations have been noisy and colourful; fancy dress parades, Magna Carta ales, re-enactments.
The royals themselves, this time in better spirits than King John eight centuries before, attended Runnymede to commemorate the anniversary with fanfare and a fly-past.
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The Queen, who is also patron of the Magna Carta Trust, said that the values contained in those fabled 3,500 words are “not just important to the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, but across the world.”
She added: “Its principles are significant and enduring.”
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Sadly, the monarch is wrong about this – as David Cameron made painfully clear with his own Magna Carta speech.
Flanked by the Queen and the archbishop of Canterbury, the Prime Minister used the event to launch an attack on the European convention on human rights (ECHR).
In apparent reference to the government’s plans for a bill of rights to replace the Human Rights Act (HRA), he said: “It falls to us in this generation to restore the reputation of those rights – and their critical underpinning of our legal system.”
It’s hard not to see the irony. In fact, if the meaning and implications of what Cameron is suggesting weren’t so terrifying, it would be downright funny.
After all what kind of leader would think to use such an occasion to denigrate the British-authored convention on human rights that is built on the very principles of the Magna Carta?
A furious Shami Chakrabarti of human rights group Liberty accused Cameron of “bare-faced” cheek, while Allan Hogarth of Amnesty International said the prime minister’s “use of the anniversary of Magna Carta to justify scrapping the HRA would have those 13th-century barons spinning in their highly-ornate, lead-lined coffins.”
The broadside on the ECHR was certainly in bad taste – a political hijacking even - but it was definitely not a surprise.
For the last decade, arguably longer, each successive government has chipped away at our freedom and democracy. Restrictions on protests and draconian terror laws have seen the beacons of freedom and democracy quietly snuffed out, as arbitrary powers (just like those the Magna Carta took away from the king) have found their way back into the hands of the state.
Take for example the Investigatory Powers Bill. Unveiled in the Queen’s Speech, the legislation includes the infamous snooper’s charter – enabling the tracking of everyone’s web and social media use.
In addition the proposal contains worrying moves to strengthen the security services’ warranted powers for the bulk interception of the content of communications.
And let’s not forget that home secretary Theresa May, whose baby this bill is, spent much of the run up to the election claiming that she wanted to target agitators and “extremists” that operate “within the law”. Her policy would mean that law abiding citizens could be locked up for having an idea not to the home secretary’s liking.
Of course, all of this happens at a time when the police - the machinery of the state - already have far greater powers than many libertarians feel comfortable with.
Under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 in October, police officers and PCSOs were given wide ranging new powers to “disperse” members of the public from a given location to prevent crime or public alarm.
Previously, orders could be invoked only if there was a “significant and persistent problem” with anti-social behaviour, but now a more vague condition requires only that the powers “may be necessary” to prevent such occurrences. The changes also mean orders can stand for 48 hours, rather than 24; apply to individuals, rather than groups; and allow for the confiscation of property.
The powers, which have already been used dozens of times in Suffolk, prompted the Manifesto Club - a group that campaigns against the hyper-regulation of everyday life - to lament that “police forces now have a roaming power to banish people from the streets.”
So what can be done? Well we could politely request that Mr Cameron does not use the Magna Carta to invoke a sense of freedom and democracy, when the Government appears hell bent on removing both. Or perhaps, rather than parties and parades, we should be marking this 800th anniversary by sending another rebellious batch of Suffolk barons to the capital.