Much mirth was generated two years ago when David Cameron, the British Prime Minister appeared on the Letterman Show and was unable to answer a question regarding the literal English translation of the Latin ‘Magna Carta’. It was ironic then that this weekend he chose to evoke the ancient manuscript, on the eve of its official 800th anniversary, as the starting point for a new conversation about ‘British Values’.
He is not the first Prime Minister to try to facilitate this conversation. His immediate predecessor Gordon Brown spectacularly failed to rouse a somnolent nation into ‘Town Hall’ meetings to debate what it meant to be British.
This time round the context is clearer; the announcement came at end of the week of the ‘Trojan Horse’ Ofsted report on Islamic influence in Birmingham schools, in the aftermath of the Ukip surge in the European Parliament elections and with the Scottish Independence referendum less than 100 days away. However the decision to use the Magna Carta to frame this debate has exposed Cameron to as much ridicule as his appearance on the iconic American chat show did in 2012.
As Tim Stanley and Dave Allen Green among many others have pointed out, this appropriation of the ‘Big — or Great — Charter’ is emphatically unhistorical, its original content has almost entirely been repealed and the principal beneficiaries in the thirteenth century were rich barons. Nothing to see here, all move along please.
But what separates the Great Charter from all the other charters issued in Germany, France and Sicily in the 13th and 14th centuries is this: its survival
As a nation we only ever really make a big deal about the Magna Carta every 50 years. As even its most trenchant sceptics concede, it retains a unique, profound and seemingly immemorial symbolic power. Indeed the fact that Letterman included it on his British quiz sheet to test the Prime Minister is testimony to this.
Over the next 12 months we can safely assume that the debate about ‘British values’ will fade away but we can be sure that a fuss will continue to be made of the Magna Carta anniversary.
Therein lies a timely and unmissable opportunity.
So we have a choice. We can use the next 12 months to contest the veracity of the Magna Carta and conduct a doubtless intellectually stimulating debate about its meaning and(ir)relevance or we can go with the historical grain — mythical or not — and evoke it as spur to facilitate a new, challenging conversation about our liberty, justice, power and democracy.
The Charter Towns, the British Library, the great English cathedrals of Salisbury and Lincoln and the Houses of Parliament will host their events. Runnymede meadow will re-create the spirit of the 1935 pageant . All wonderful, and why not?
Our politicians — both on left and right — will exhume the old manuscript to advance their causes as they always have. Let them.
For me the next year is however a special chance for we the people to celebrate, educate and agitate.
Celebrate as Steve Baker MP did so eloquently at Runnymede yesterday but also let’s exhume the Forsterian and ‘only connect’
Let’s convene and curate a new conversation about how we want to live together under the law, how we can constrain the powerful, protect the weak, promote liberty and tackle injustice.
In this wonderful essay in the New Statesman six years ago the historian Tom Holland argued the most potent national myths of all have invariably been those most susceptible to multiple readings — and most capable of evolving in response to change.
It is in this spirit that we should engage with the Magna Carta and its anniversary.
Over the past five months I have been working with small group of historians, academics, philanthropists and writers to develop a new charity to advance these ideas.
Do contact me if you would like to be part of our work.