Magna Carta: A Beginner's Guide

By James O Malley on at

Have you ever wondered why the Queen can’t send people to The Tower any more? The answer starts at Magna Carta.

When humans first started organising themselves in political units a few thousand years ago, there didn’t tend to be much argument about who was in charge: It was the family with the biggest stick. To retain power, these powerful families would have basically two options: dish out patronage to other powerful people, in order to buy their cooperation with the existing order, or smash the pretenders to the throne.

And this is essentially why we got Magna Carta. You’re going to hear a lot of bullshit and bluster today about how the document created our modern democracy - and while this is partially true, it is also broadly accidental. The document was instead - as all political agreements are - a product of its time, designed to deal with an immediate political issues of the day like inheritance tax.

Deal with the Barons

Essentially, the Barons had finally got King John by the balls. He was hopeless, having lost a major war with France and the Barons didn’t want John taking any more of their cash. To stop a full-on rebellion, Magna Carta was arrived at as a compromise - for the first time limiting the power of the monarch in a big way.

The document itself is full of clauses that are completely irrelevant today - and many of which that are pretty awkward to talk about. Like how American politicians today often talk about the importance of the Constitution whilst quietly ignoring the bits about slavery, I presume we’re not going to hear too much about all of the Jewish Money-Lender stuff in today’s celebrations of the document’s 800th anniversary.

The document was significant though - as it established an important legal principle that persist today.

Rule of Law

As the first document to limit the power of the King, it established the Rule of Law tradition. This is the idea that law - and not the arbitrary decisions of those in charge should govern a country - and as a consequence of this, it puts limits on the power of the monarch to do what they like, so they still have to operate within a legal framework. Obviously in the 13th century the King still had significantly more latitude to do what he wanted to, but Rule of Law is the foundation of why David Cameron can’t just lock up whoever he likes on a whim, and why pretender to the throne Boris Johnson can sleep soundly in his own bed at night.

It is pretty difficult to under-estimate the importance of Rule of Law. In The Origins of Political Order, political theorist Francis Fukuyama goes as far as arguing that it one of the three major components that make modern states possible. Lack of a Rule of Law tradition, he argues, is the reason why countries like Russia and China are still not democracies today - because the idea that executive power can be limited is not embedded in their constitutions nor the psyche of the people who live there. By extension, the fact that we got Rule of Law sorted-out as a concept 800 years ago is part of the reason why Britain grew to be so powerful in later centuries.

Habeas Corpus

The primacy of Rule of Law is also the reason behind what Magna Carta is best known for: Habeas Corpus - the legal principle that you can’t be imprisoned without a court saying so. What’s weird is that Magna Carta doesn’t actually say this explicitly - that was for later law to do so, but it established some of the principles that led up to it. (When Habeas Corpus was explicitly enshrined in law in 1679 it only passed because the guy counting the votes counted a fat MP as 10 votes for a laugh. I swear I’m not making this up.)

Obviously, there are many more interpretations of Magna Carta available - and it is a document that has been debated for as long as it has existed. Paul Mason, for example, makes an interesting case for it being more of an economic document than a political one. Similarly, despite the political hyperbole today, it wasn’t the end-point for how we got our democracy - that can also be attributed to several hundred years of radicals demanding more rights for people, from the English Civil War to the French Revolution to the Suffragettes.

Heck, the Magna Carta wasn’t even about normal people at all - a modern equivalent would be the Prime Minister doing a deal with the millionaire bankers and the billionaire oligarchs agreeing to cut their inheritance tax… and you can imagine how well that would go down. But despite this, it was definitely a good start for what later became our modern liberal democracy. Hurrah!