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Magna Carta, 800 years on


By dxw

Wilton Park reflects upon the legacy of Magna Carta in an international context on its 800th anniversary.

Today marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, also known as “the Great Charter” and perhaps the most important constitutional document of the United Kingdom. Internationally, this document has profound significance with influence in jurisdictions beyond the sovereign territory of the United Kingdom. So, what makes it so important?

Magna Carta’s blood-splattered history following its inception has been dwarfed by the continuing importance of the rights and freedoms it has enshrined. The first documents were drafted to protect church rights, illegal imprisonment of barons, access to swift justice, and limitations on feudal payments to the crown. Since then, Magna Carta has become a fundamental text as society applied the principles of freedom under the law beyond just one denomination or social class. Magna Carta famously undermined the divine right of kings and in our modern society it guarantees the rights of ordinary Britons.

It is significant because of its internationalist character. As a result, it maintains profound soft power importance for the image of the United Kingdom in the world. In a sense, it is a legacy of the United Kingdom within the lifeblood of other countries, especially in the Commonwealth and the United States of America.

Over the entirety of this year, the British Government have been arranging a series of events in celebration of Magna Carta. British Embassies across the world have hosted events to reflect upon its significance and relation to the international rule of law. Concurrently, a schedule of events has been taking place across the UK from the start of this year, and will continue until the end of 2015. This includes a host of academic lectures, citizenship ceremonies, concerts, and exhibitions. Of particular note are the nation-wide events spearheaded from the ground-up, such as ‘LiberTeas’: a quintessentially British occasion to talk about the liberties of Magna Carta over a cup of tea.

The lessons of Magna Carta typify some our most fundamental problems today: right to due process (Habeas Corpus), redistribution of wealth, corruption of power, illegal detainment and religious intolerance. Wilton Park chooses, today, not only to commemorate Magna Carta but to recognise its constitutional values within our work. Our motto reads: “harnessing the power of dialogue” – a phrase that our constitutional forefathers at Runnymede would empathise strongly with. The thread of rights-based language and legal philosophy in Magna Carta reverberates in our commitment, as an agency within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, unto human rights efforts worldwide.

Looking ahead, Magna Carta looks set to continue to play a crucial role in protecting rights and liberties both at home and abroad. Tim Berners-Lee has recently called for a “digital Magna Carta”, echoing the worries of many that our internet freedoms are under threat. In addition to this, the UK House of Commons established a political and constitutional reform committee which reported a variety of plausible steps forward for Magna Carta. One thing is clear moving on from this anniversary: Magna Carta will continue to hold a prominent position on the world stage – the question we must now address is, how do we safeguard its premise for another 800 years?

Further information

Official Magna Carta 800th anniversary website

The British Library internet Magna Carta vote launch



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