Magna Carta

Published by at 9:20 am under Justice

Magna Carta … the foundation of our freedom And another thing: Nullus liber homo capiatur, vel imprisonetur, aut … Hmnnn. Unless landowners are going to start posting signs in Latin to dissuade state harassment, which I'd support, I'd better rephrase that. But hold on to the thought. In English and complete, that passage reads: "No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land." And yes, it's from good old Magna Carta. Clause 39 of the 1215 original, to be precise, and Clause 29 of the tidied-up 1225 reissue. Good old MCCXV.Those were the days. Not that I pine for cholera, plague and no coffee. But Magna Carta was an extraordinarily vigorous statement not just that Englishmen should be free in principle, but about how to be free in practice. It contains some strange or trivial things, especially the 1215 version, drawn up in haste and signed by King John under extreme duress. We worry less now than we once did about the heirs of barons paying only the ancient scale of relief, or whether some scurvy kinsmen of Gerard de Athee might acquire a government job in England. But Magna Carta also contains some important rules that are still observed to this day or, at least, until recently. For instance, in Clause 12 the King promised that "No 'scutage' or 'aid' may be levied in our kingdom without its general consent" except for three specific and limited purposes. The terms are archaic but the essence of this passage is "No taxation without representation." It took a while to work out all the procedural details, some five or six centuries in fact, but the central idea was never relinquished in Britain, or America, nor should it be here. As for King John's promise in the original Clause 40, "To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice, " well, that one looks just fine as is. It's important to hold on to these rights because they are the foundation of liberty in practice. It's also important to hold on to the memory of where they come from because they illustrate that Canadians are, fundamentally and historically, a free people. If we were not, I would still say we should try to assert our fundamental human rights, since freedom is essential not just to prosperity but to dignity as well. But the task is far easier when we are actually reasserting rather than asserting them. For one thing, it protects us in debate against accusations that we are somehow unCanadian in wishing not to be fined or imprisoned without due process. For another, when we attempt to secure this kind of right, we touch a chord with far more of our fellows than we would in societies with less happy political histories. I wish everyone luck anywhere in the world who is trying to build a free society, without which a free government is not going to happen. But it's a lot easier when others have done the work for you over many centuries. Of course in recent decades Canada has seen much immigration from less free parts of the world, but overwhelmingly these people were attracted to Canada for the by John Robson right sorts of reasons and are at least as receptive to arguments for principled liberty as some of the folks born here. Magna Carta can be acquired as well as inherited. There's a third important benefit to asserting ancient liberties. It means we are not putting forward some speculative scheme that sounds good but, like the "freedom" promised by the French revolution, might turn out to be a high-minded recipe for slaughter and misery. The rights in Magna Carta were worked out in practice before being committed to paper, or parchment, for greater certainty against usurpation, and have been repeatedly vindicated in practice since. Indeed, those who brought King John to heel in 1215, and those who insisted that every one of his successors personally reissue it for the next 200 years, saw themselves as reasserting traditional freedoms, not imposing some novel system of liberty. That's how old these rights are. I'm tempted to say here that everyone talks about Magna Carta but no one does anything about it. But I'm not even sure anyone talks about it much. And when they do, they're liable to make some sort of vague reference to its position as a cornerstone of liberty, rather than recite specific provisions or pin it up over their desks. That's why I'm tempted to print T-shirts that say Magna Carta "Good then, good now." Let me know if you'd like one, in Latin or English. The Landowner Magazine – April Mqy 2009 25