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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

MAGNA CARTA (1215) - The very basis of our democracy

Whilst helping my 10 year old grandson with his homework, I discovered there was no suitable book in print available for children on the topic of Magna Carta. Why are we in Britain so negligent in the teaching of democracy to our young?

Thus I thought a revisit to the topic might not be out of place. It certainly isn't out of time, as the British Government is in the process of considering stopping the right of appeal against residence in UK by those the Government insists, incorrectly, calling 'illegal' immigrants. There is, of course, no such thing as an 'illegal' immigrant until they are found not to be genuine refugees, asylum seekers etc. But my reading of Magna Carta is that they are still entitled to a right of appeal.

Magna Carta (The Great Charter) is regarded both in Britain and in The United States as the basis of our individual freedoms, of the rule of law, and indeed of democracy itself. In reality the document was forced on King John by his Barons, who objected to the fact that he was ruling without seeking their advice. It was definitely not a People's Charter, but that is what it has come to represent. The point of Magna Carta is not so much what it said, or the context in which it came about, but rather what it came to symbolise, especially in the turbulent years of the seventeenth century, when those fighting against the arbitrary government of King Charles I referred to it to justify their opposition In the following century American colonists referenced it when they rebelled against rule from London (No taxation without Representation).

After World War Two Eleanor Roosevelt again referenced Magna Carta in The General Assembly of The UN when she referred to The Declaration of Human Rights as 'the international Magna Carta for all men everywhere'.

The key phrase, still English law, that rings out loud and true is:-

'To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice. No free man shall be seized, imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed, exiled or ruined in any way, nor in any way proceeded against, except by lawful judgement of his peers and by the law of the land.'

As many today worry about Liberal Democracy, we should in every free and democratic country have the above words written clearly for all to see in every educational establishment from nursery to university. I well remember when I first began in Adult Education back in the late 1960s being the tutor responsible for ensuring that a Conference on Federalism went smoothly. The organiser was Monica Wingate, a recently retired Principal of a Teaching College, and sister of the redoubtable Orde Wingate. Her first words on meeting me were to the point. 'Where is your copy of The UN Charter?' I felt rather self satisfied, having recently finished reading law at Oxford, by replying, 'in my study, Miss Wingate'. 'In your study', she almost exploded. 'it should be here', at which point she smote her breast, 'next to your heart young man'. Now after all these years I understand the point she was so dramatically making - we should ever be prepared to defend our democracy.....and teach it. More than half a century on, rather belatedly, I say ' Monica, I'm with you!'

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