A few days ago, the UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced that a future Conservative government would revoke legislation that embeds the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. Since then, leading members of the current government have indicated that Britain might withdraw from the European Convention entirely if the institution rejected the proposed changes.
This policy raises political and legal issues which have stirred lots of feeling, but it is not for this blog (or this blogger) to take a position on them here. Striking however is the level of appeal to history that has appeared, on both sides of the argument. Many commentators have pointed to the prominent role of British lawyers in setting up the Convention in the 1940s and 1950s in the first place. In Cameron’s speech, however, he reached back to an earlier, perhaps more authoritative past. Britain, he said, doesn’t need lessons on human rights from Europe. After all: “This is the country that wrote Magna Carta.”
Magna Carta has become a touchstone for claims to liberty almost since the time it was written, so David Cameron’s reference is itself in a long historical tradition. And as ever, it’s always nice to see medieval history being given the attention in public discourse it deserves. However, while placing Magna Carta within a British context as opposed to a European one might be good rhetoric, it’s bad history (and bad history is seldom a basis for good politics).
As surely everyone knows now, “Britain” was of course not a country in 1215 (though it was an idea). And Magna Carta is not really evidence for a unique English achievement either, since it was just one of several documents drawn up across medieval Europe around this time to put the relationship between a king and his nobility on a written basis, even if the others are regrettably less well known today to the wider public.
More than that, though, engagement with the European mainland is actually at the heart of Magna Carta itself.
One of the key architects of the document was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton. Langton was born in Lincolnshire but was educated in Paris, where he taught theology for many years in what would these days be called an ‘ivory tower’. Some of his teaching concerned the proper relationship between kings and their subjects. And a recent article by Professor John Baldwin, based on Langton’s unpublished archives, revealed a remarkable overlap between the key ideas of Magna Carta and what Langton had learned, taught and discussed on the Left Bank. “Of the four articles of Magna Carta in 1215 that survive on the Statute Books today, three (art. 1, freedom of the Church, art. 39, due process and art. 40, sale of justice) were enunciated by Stephen Langton at Paris”. 1
In other words, the great touchstone of English liberty had an unmistakably French intellectual flavour. That’s not to say that Magna Carta didn’t reflect specific English conditions and circumstances. Of course it did – it was not merely a scholastic exercise, but a political intervention that played out in the English kingdom for many years afterwards. It was a combination of ideas and realities. But if the realities were mostly English, the ideas came, at least in part, from Paris. One might even be tempted to ascribe its political success precisely to the way it blended English pragmatism with the latest French theory.
So, let politicians invoke the ‘Great Charter’ in a discussion of the proper relationship between the UK and the rest of Europe. But all that the document can really reveal in such a context is the reality of a long, shared history of thinking about rights on both sides of the Channel. Magna Carta cannot possibly show that the UK doesn’t need lessons on human rights from Europe, because in a sense, that’s exactly what it was.
Charles West is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the Department of History. He is currently on a Humboldt Foundation Fellowship at the University of Tübingen. You can follow him on twitter: @Pseudo_Isidore, and read about his research here
Image credit: one of the four surviving 1215 copies of Magna Carta. Wikipedia.