Sunday, November 20, 2011

Our 800 years of British inheritance

We owe our liberty, legal system and democracy to 800+ years of British legal inheritance dating back to Magna Carta in 1225 (first edition 1215). While "we" encompasses principally nations that were once part of the British Empire, it also includes those whose politics and laws have been heavily influenced by British notions of liberty and democracy (eg. France, Germany, Japan) - in other words it’s pretty much everyone on the planet who currently lives in a functioning free and democratic society.

A couple of books

The British struggle was enormous and it was not by any means a sure thing that it would be successful. To get a feel for the magnitude and significance of that struggle John Robson recommended two books:
"The Magna Carta: A Brief History of" by Geoffrey Hindley sets the scene with descriptions of British society circa 1200, the system of governance (mainly feudal tyranny) and the main players (the king and the barony) leading to Magna Carta in which the King John I recognized, in writing, the natural rights of the barons (and all freemen) and limitations on the royal prerogative.
"The Lion and the Throne" by Catherine Drinker Bowen. Magna Carta being just the documented beginning, there was inevitable push-back by subsequent monarchs. This book picks up the story 400 years later and covers the life and times of Edward Coke during the reigns of Elizabeth I, James I and Charles I. Along with his perilous run-ins with the monarchy (once imprisoned on charges of treason) fighting to keep hard won liberties, Coke is famous for the 1628 Petition of Right (reaffirming and updating rights recognized by the Magna Carta) and for his meticulous documentation of case-law (he was the most cited source for another 200 years). It’s a fascinating story including tales of Francis Bacon (a Coke rival and foe), Walter Raleigh (beheaded) and Guy Fawkes (his gunpowder plot, trial and gruesome execution).
Both books together drive home the significance of the monumental, centuries long effort to achieve the liberties we enjoy today. It’s history that should be a mandatory part of high school curriculum - but probably isn't. My recollection of my own high school ‘education’ on this subject is that it consisted of a few short sentences about Magna Carta from a text on British history; and, the answer to the exam question, if there were one, would have been the name of the event and its date.

Who cares?

The British contribution to liberty is appreciated to varying degrees around the world. Based on explicitly and publicly expressed reverence for it the list would run, in order of appreciation: Great Britain (though it has apparently slipped in recent decades), America followed by a few Commonwealth countries.

Of the 17 copies of the Magna Carta surviving from the 13th century only two are held outside England - one in Washington DC and one in Canberra, Australia. British concepts of liberty figure prominently in the creation of American constitution and legal system and Americans readily acknowledge and honour their significance (eg. the American Bar Association erected The Magna Carta Memorial at Runnymede, England).

Canada ... not so much. Except perhaps in the legal profession there seems to be little more than lip-service paid to the origins of our liberties. We got ours in 1982, from Pierre Trudeau, in his Charter of Rights and Freedoms, didn’t you know?


Alain said...

I totally agree. Of course the so-called progressives are just the opposite, since want to take us back to the time before we had gained our basic rights and freedom.

JR said...

Yes, I'd bet the 'progressive' 'Occupy' crowd hasn't a clue about who the real heros are and the real source of their freedom to bitch about "the system".