Here in England we are in the midst of a political row about Magna Carta.
Yes, that’s right. As the world crumbles, we are debating the finer points of thirteenth century constitutional law. You would have thought we had better things to argue about.
Iraq is falling apart, Vladimir Putin is strutting around Eastern Europe like a pissed-up bull after too many Stellas, and Wayne Rooney is being played as a left-sided midfielder. But no. We are too busy scoring points about our interpretation of a document that’s nearly 800 years old.
And obviously as a historian I’m thrilled that the commentariat are going through one of their cyclical bouts of thinking they Know Stuff About the Past. Thrilled.
For those on the political right, it seems, Magna Carta somehow embodies ‘British values’ (despite only applying to England), and should be celebrated as such. A defence against the European Union and Trojan Horses, or something.
On the left, commentators point out that the political rights it enshrined were restricted to a narrow elite, and thus that it has no relevance to the modern world, as if that’s the way we should judge something’s historical importance.
Both of these views are equally stupid. The whole concept of British values is a nonsense, unless it is reduced to such trivialities as constantly apologising, or saying ‘tut’ when we really mean ‘I want to hurt you in the face’.
Okay, we’re now a pretty tolerant nation, and I’m glad (and proud) of that. But there’s nothing necessarily British about it, otherwise we’d never have bought and sold black people or blamed the Great Fire of London on Roman Catholics. An eighteenth-century observer might have looked to Prussia as a beacon of tolerance. But I’m not sure many of us would argue that tolerance is an inherently ‘Prussian’ value.
Even Magna Carta itself was just one of a series of similar documents that were produced across Europe in this period. So the damn thing wasn’t even uniquely English.
Similarly, the idea, usually espoused from the political left, that we should ignore those bits of our history that don’t neatly fit in with modern ideals of liberalism and democracy, or that we should give short shrift to those individuals who commit the gross inconvenience of not thinking like we do, is similarly dumb.
But the key thing here is that we should not be celebrating Magna Carta. But neither should we forget about it because it had the cheek not to be the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
We should be using the 800 year anniversary to understand the document as a piece of history in its own right. We should ponder what it tells us about the conflicts between the developing central government and the nobility in the thirteenth century. What it might show us about political culture and the use of written laws in the thirteenth century. What it tells us about landlordism and the relationship between lords and peasants in the thirteenth century. And, of course, how it fits into the development of Parliament and the English (not British) common law, in – you’ve guessed it – the thirteenth century.
In fact, to be perfectly frank, the Present needs to bugger off and get its tanks off the Past’s lawns.
And once we’ve considered what the document meant in the context of the world that produced it, we can start to think about how it has been appropriated by more recent societies for political ends. From the reformers of the 17th century, to the whig historians of the 19th, to the United States of America – trying to project themselves as the arbiters of liberty in the 20th and 21st, right through to Michael Gove, David Cameron, and the modern-day Conservative Party.
This is, of course, an interesting story. But it is not the same thing as understanding Magna Carta, where it came from, and what it meant. In the thirteenth century.