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Opinion: It’s not time to celebrate yet – the Magna Carta is under systematic attack from an intrusive state, says Matt Gaw

PUBLISHED: 13:43 23 June 2015 | UPDATED: 13:43 23 June 2015

A general view of an original Magna Carta from the issue made in 1300 by King Edward l to the borough of Sandwich in Kent.

A general view of an original Magna Carta from the issue made in 1300 by King Edward l to the borough of Sandwich in Kent.

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.

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.”

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.


  • I always seem to believe in the absolute polar opposite to anything Matt Gaw ever writes, I suspect he has a Karl Marx crush judging by the thinly disguised venom he spits at the usual topics. A British version of Human Rights is long overdue and will end the disgustingly anti-English, pro-criminal, tax wasting gravy train we are shackled to at the moment. Basically, anything that says `European` on the tin is rancid and bad for the UK. History tells us so.

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    Thursday, June 25, 2015

  • Magna Carta... Anyone who knew what it was would realise almost all the clauses have been repealed since and even back then within 10 years a third of it was modified or deleted. Even the King was subject to the law... except there has always been a multi-class system where some people, the elite, are untouchable and where the police and criminal justice system were not interested in pursuing everybody... So 800 years later we can be pleased the influence it has had around the world but it has largely been a failure, good in principle.

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    Ipswich Entrepreneur

    Tuesday, June 23, 2015

  • Good article. Matt Gaw seems far and away the best writer the paper has had for a while.

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    Esco Fiasco

    Tuesday, June 23, 2015

  • I agree with Baptist Trainfan, this is a remarkable article to be appearing in the Star, and one I also completely agree with.

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    Geoff Stevenson

    Tuesday, June 23, 2015

  • I think that this is a remarkable article to have appeared in the "Star" - and I completely agree with it. For the last ten years or so Governments have nibbled away at human rights under the pretext of "security". Now David Cameron is doing the same in a blatantly populist rant which will delight the anti-Europeans. While I think that too much weight is sometimes given to Magna Carta, it was indeed the first stage of a process which we must be very careful of throwing away.

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    Baptist Trainfan

    Tuesday, June 23, 2015

  • Would this be the same rightfully proud Suffolk Barons which seek to wipe the 815 year old Borough of Ipswich off the political map ? An act of unrivalled democratic vandalism under their plans for a unitary Suffolk.

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    Mark Ling

    Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The views expressed in the above comments do not necessarily reflect the views of this site

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