Home Page

A Charge to Keep: the Magna Carta at 800

By Daniel Hannan
A European Parliament representative from England

       London in August 1647 was a tense and frightened city. The English Civil War had just come to an end. Believers in parliamentary supremacy had, thank God, triumphed over believers in royal absolutism. But it was already becoming clear that the true power in the land were the Puritan troopers of the New Model Army who were advancing, angry and unpaid, on the capital city.
       Parliament, in a conciliatory gesture to the soldiers, appointed their commander, Sir Thomas Fairfax, as Constable of the Tower of London. And the first act of that Roundhead general on taking up his office was to call for the greatest treasure in the land to be brought before him.
       That treasure was not a crown or a scepter or a casket full of gems, but an old desiccated parchment covered with faded Latin script - the Magna Carta, sealed 800 years ago next June. As Fairfax picked up that parchment he breathed reverentially, “This is that we have fought for and by God's help we must maintain.”
       Shared Patrimony
       Why am I coming all the way here to the Western Conservative Summit and talking to you about this document sealed eight centuries ago? America, after all, is a famously forward-looking country. Your remote ancestors came here at one time or another keen to shake the dust of the Old World from their shoes. And perhaps you in Colorado have the most forward-looking part.
       People came long distances to become Americans, and then the most independent, the most self-starting, the most self-reliant of them traveled even further distances to establish these rectangular states like this one. Here they replicated, purified, and distilled the things that make the U.S. political system so resilient and responsive - the dispersal of power, the ballot initiatives, the referendums, the popular choice.
       You've used them in Colorado to enact safeguards like term limits and taxpayers' bill of rights. The system has worked here. Indeed this is the state which, according to Ayn Rand in "Atlas Shrugged," is going to be the last bastion of freedom, for her fabled Galt's Gulch is situated somewhere in this rectangle. (She doesn't specify where, though I'm guessing it's not Boulder.)
       That spirit of freedom is the reason I'm talking about something so old in a place that is so proverbially forward-looking. Because Magna Carta is the shared patrimony of all the people who speak the language in which you're listening to these words.
       John Wilkes, a great champion of American rights in the 18th century, when he was locked up in that same Tower of London, said Magna Carta is the distinguishing characteristic of all Englishmen, by which he included, at that time, all Americans.
       Runnymede to Philadelphia
       Lord Benning, perhaps the most celebrated jurist in my country in the 20th century, said it is the greatest constitutional document of all time, “the supreme defense of individual freedom against the arbitrary power of the despot.”
       That old piece of paper is to us who speak this language, if I may use a Biblical analogy, our Torah. It's the text that sets us apart and yet, paradoxically at the same time, the text that speaks universal truths to mankind. And it's fitting we remember it here in this country, because I think for some reason it has meant even more on this side of the Atlantic than in the place where it was agreed.
       Hatton Sumners, the House Judiciary Committee chairman in the 1930s, in holding his arguments against Roosevelt's New Deal, said: “A straight line runs from Runnymede to Philadelphia.” And he was right. America's Founders were not revolutionaries in their own minds. They were conservatives.
       They were looking to an ancient heritage of freedom that they traced back through England's Glorious Revolution in 1688, back through our Civil War in the 1640s, back to that magical moment by the river with the reeds at Runnymede in 1215. That moment of planetary significance, where for the first time ever the idea that the law was above the government took written, contractual form.
       Magna Carta was constantly in the minds of the delegates to the Continental Congresses. When Massachusetts as a state adopted a seal it was a patriot holding a sword in one hand and a copy of the Great Charter in the other. Your Supreme Court has cited Magna Carta more than a hundred times. Believe me when I tell you it means more here than in the place - which happens to be in my own parliamentary district - where it was signed.
       Safekeeping in Fort Knox
       The site itself went completely unmarked until the late 1950s, when a memorial stone was finally erected there - and by whom? By your countrymen, the American Bar Association, and to this day that remains the only monument at Runnymede. But I am working to have a worthier and larger memorial erected for the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in June 2015.
       Here's an example of why I say this has always mattered more here than there. There are four original copies of Magna Carta, four that were contemporaneously signed at the field itself. One of them is in Salzburg Cathedral, one is in Lincoln Cathedral, two in the British Library.
       Lincoln's is generally held to be the best one, and it has just arrived in the United States for a tour, already attracting large crowds. By contrast, when I visited it at the cathedral in England with my kids not long ago, there was no line, no fuss, all very low key. But when that same document from Lincoln was exhibited in New York in 1939, an almost incredible 14 million people crushed in to look at it.
       The Second World War broke out while it was still on display over here, and it was held in Fort Knox for safekeeping until the victory. After all, Magna Carta was the aptest possible symbol of what the English-speaking peoples were fighting for in that conflict: namely, a system that elevates the individual above the collective, that reveres the law rather than raw power.
       Law of the Land
       That was the real miracle of Runnymede, the really providential thing - the idea that the power did not come from the king or from the biggest guy in the tribe, but that there was something above the king, something you couldn't see or touch, but which bound the mightiest monarch as surely as it bound his meanest subject - and that something was the law.
       “The law of the land” - it's a phrase that appears in the Great Charter itself; a law imminent in a people and in their territory. My friends, if you grant that, almost everything else follows. You have property rights, personal liberty, and constitutional freedom. You have the makings of the free-market system that has elevated our species to a pinnacle of happiness that would once have been unimaginable.
       And so many other things that we now take for granted: regular elections, jury trials, equality between men and women, uncensored newspapers, and habeas corpus.
       Those wonderful precepts are not the natural condition of an advanced society, not something a country just gets once it becomes wealthy enough and educated enough. They are precepts overwhelmingly developed in the language in which I am speaking these words.
       If we now sometimes speak of them as Western values or even universal values, the fact is we're just being polite. They only became to some extent universal because of a series of military victories by the English-speaking peoples when your fathers and ours fought together for freedom.
       Roosevelt and Churchill
       Let me take you back to another August: August 1941, the day that Franklin Roosevelt made the longest walk of his presidency. He'd been invited by Winston Churchill to join him on the decks of HMS Prince of Wales.
       Until then, in a way that would be unimaginable today, the media had contrived to hide the fact of President Roosevelt's polio from the electorate. Photographs had always shown him standing unaided or seated. But on this occasion he was determined literally to rise to the occasion.
       And so, supported on one side by his son, on the other by a naval officer, leaning heavily on a cane, he made his slow way across the swaying decks as the band struck up “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” What followed was the most extraordinary visible manifestation of the values that hold the peoples of the Anglosphere together.
       It happened to be a Sunday morning, and the crews of the two vessels (Prince of Wales and the USS Augusta, which had been carrying FDR) were assembled for a joint religious service. Churchill had chosen every detail of that service personally and meticulously, down to the hymns that the two groups of sailors sang. He'd chosen even the reading himself: “As I was with Moses, so will I be with thee. I will not fail thee nor forsake thee. Be strong and of good courage” (Joshua 1:5, 6).
       Afterwards, exultantly, Churchill burst out to an aide: “The same language, the same hymns, the same ideals!” When he spoke of the same ideals, he wasn't making some bland generalization about being the good guys. Think of the world as it stood in the summer of 1941.
       Victory of our Values
       Constitutional freedom was confined to the Anglosphere, to the community of free English-speaking democracies. The whole of the Eurasian land mass from Seoul and Vladivostok to Brest and Lisbon was under one form or another of authoritarianism. Everybody thought our system was finished.
       Listen to the language that the Nazis and the Communists used to describe what they always called “decadent Anglo-Saxon capitalism” or “rotten Anglo-Saxon capitalism.”
       It seemed obvious to them that their collective systems, which emphasized sacrifice and virtue in numbers and government action that elevated the state above the citizen, must triumph over the individualism of our system.
       But they were wrong, thank heaven. The victory of our values ushered in a period of prosperity and happiness that our species had never before encountered. At least that was so until very recently. But you may already see where I'm going with this. Begin with a scary statistic:
       One hundred years ago, your government spent 7.5% of the economy. Fifty years ago it was 27%. Ten years ago it was 32%. Today it's 42%. You can't carry on like this. More debt has been accumulated under this president than under his 43 predecessors.
       We've gotten to the point where the money has run out, where service providers have become pension providers, where the primary function of the government bureaucracy is the employment of its own employees, where the mayor of San Bernardino, California, has to say, lock up your doors and buy guns because there are no police any more.
       If we look around the world, we see your country derided and traduced from Ukraine to Syria, places where prestige is a hard and almost tangible commodity. Unpleasant regimes are making the calculation that they don't need to worry about the goodwill of the West anymore and are beginning to cozy up to altogether less pleasant systems of government.
       Why is that happening? Because when you have a $17 trillion national debt, you're not in the same position to deploy force that you were in when you were in charge of your finances.
       We occasionally get these U.S. legislators coming over to the EU headquarters in Brussels and saying “Is there anything we can do for you?” I say to them yes, get on top of your debt crisis. If you do that, everything else will follow.
       Too Late?
       But there's something wrong with my having to come here to say that. This is the country that was founded on the ideal of the dispersal of power, the constraint of government, the decentralization and diffusion of decision-making. Yet now it's turning its back on its own foundation. Recently on a trip to California, I was struck by a metaphor about wine growing. The earliest vineyards there were planted, of ourse, from old stock out of France, Spain, and Italy. But in the 19th century, after a terrible blight called phylloxera almost wiped out European viniculture, those wine growers had to come over here and bring back clippings to restart the industry of wine growing again in the ancestral places.
       My dream has always been to do something similar in politics. Coming from a country that has seen its government grow, its sovereignty given to the European Union, I dreamed of being able to reimport elements of the Anglosphere model.
       Imagine, though, what it would have been like for those wine growers if they had arrived in California only to find they were too late; the aphids had got there before them, the egg was already on the leaf. That's the threat we now face as America hangs in the balance politically.
       Not for Royalty Alone
       But leave aside wine as a metaphor. What about wine as a reality? After hours here at the Summit last night, looking out over the Rockies and having a glass of pinot noir, I thought: Here is a wine which in quality and consistency is beyond anything that Louis XIV dreamed of and it's what, $20 a bottle?
       This is the real miracle of our system. It brings that kind of richness into the power of ordinary workers. As the great economist Joseph Schumperer put it, "The achievement of capitalism is not to supply more silk stockings to princesses, but to bring them within the reach of factory girls."
       And that's what happens when you have the law above the government. That's all you need. Secure property, free contract, and independent magistracy; everything else follows. You can trust the rest to the enterprise, to the bold, quizzical, spirited restlessness of a free people.
       Soul of a Nation
       And that's what it is we stand to lose - that system that has done so much for the happiness of our species and that is now being choked by excessive government. That's our collective achievement. That's our shared patrimony.
       We who speak this language, that's the road that brought us from Runnymede to Philadelphia and that now, becoming a little bit bendier, more of a track in places, is still taking us onward. We have to decide, you and I, whether we're going to continue on that road or whether we're going to give it up.
       Hatton Sumners said in that same 1937 speech I quoted earlier: “We have no king. We are our own masters. If we the people fail, constitutional government fails with us.” Think about the responsibility that you have inherited. You are the heirs to the best, the noblest, the most sublime constitutional dispensation ever evolved by human intelligence.
       That inheritance carries with it a duty to preserve, intact, the freedoms that you inherited from your parents and to pass them on securely to your children. Never be afraid to speak to and for the soul of this nation of which by good fortune and God's grace, you are privileged to be part.

       Editor's note: Daniel Hannan has represented South East England for the Conservative Party in the European Parliament since 1999. Hannan writes a regular blog at The Telegraph and has authored several books, most recently “Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World .” He delivered the address above July 20, 2014, at the closing session of Western Conservative Summit 2014.
       Hannan's speech is reprinted with permission from the December 2014 issue of the Centennial Review, a monthly publication of the Centennial Institute, located in Lakewood. According to a statement in the Centennial Review, the institute “sponsors research, events, and publications to enhance public understanding of the most important issues facing our state and nation. By proclaiming truth, we aim to foster faith, family, and freedom, teach citizenship, and renew the spirit of 1776.” The Centennial Institute website is CentennialCCU.org

(Posted 2/14/15; Opinion: General)

Would you like to respond to this column? The Westside Pioneer welcomes feedback to "General" items (to appear under this subcategory) at editor@westsidepioneer.com. (Click here for letter-writing criteria.)