Magna Carta and Pluralism

“Magna Carta has everything going for it to be venerated in the United States. It is old, it is English, and, because no one has actually read the text, it is easy to invoke for current needs.”                                                                                                      (Tom Ginsburg, in NYT, June 15)

Regular readers will recall my old Oxford pal (indeed the only Oxford pal with whom I stay in regular contact), Derek Taylor. Whenever I am in the UK, I try to look him up at the Old Stables in Stow-on-the-Wold, although, if he hears I am coming over, he does sometimes abscond sharply to his retreat in Spain. Derek has now published a second book, titled ‘Magna Carta in Twenty Places’, which appeared in the UK in time for the octingentenary, and in the USA at the beginning of July.

If history is arguably all about sex, power, wealth and religion, I would assert that we pupils got short shrift in 1950s Britain. Sex was obviously a taboo subject, and religion was only slightly less shy-making, as I suspect the masters were probably a bit embarrassed about all the absurd Catholic-Protestant clashes that endured through the centuries. Moreover, they had to be sensitive to the fact that the religion of their charges could have been all over the map, even though Whitgift School had been founded by an Archbishop of Canterbury, and – quite correctly – such beliefs should have remained a private affair. (I remain amazed, however, that so many obviously smart and educated persons, encouraging their pupils to think inquiringly, should have accepted all the superstitions and mumbo-jumbo of religion so unquestioningly.) Thus my recollection of History was a set of dreary topics that did not string together, with major wars interspersed with boring descriptions of devices that peasants used to till the land. ‘One damn thing after another’, as Arnold Toynbee said of history, but I always wanted to know how things had arrived at where the current textbook started off, and what motivated all the agents in the drama. No wonder my mind wandered, wondering whether the rain would interfere with cricket practice.

Derek obviously had a great teacher, and, what’s more, unlike me, he paid attention. He dedicates his work to Stan Revill, who must have been a marvellous man to learn from. Derek brings the evolution of the Magna Carta alive by visiting twenty places, from The Wash to Washington, D.C., from Acre to Angoulême, that either affected its creation, or were influenced by its reality – and myth. He starts off in fine and typical style with a wonderful inspection of Ernest Normand’s iconic depiction of the scene at Runnymede, which ‘represents the classic myth of “bad” King John, the “upright” barons, and Magna Carta as the “birth of democracy”. He has a deep knowledge of the time, and the leading actors, and brings a journalist’s keen eye for today’s physical world to bridge the realities of life eight hundred years ago with the often forgetful world of the 21st century, equally dissonant in so many ways, but in a very different manner.

Magna Carta had been mythologised, and misunderstood, according to Derek, but he reminds us that it does represent the rule of law, and the assertion that even despots should be subject to it. It’s a strong lesson to citizens of the UK and the USA in particular that we should be grateful that we have term limits, and impeachment processes, and regular elections that give us a chance ‘to throw the current lot out’, as opposed to so many other countries around the globe. (Isn’t that what President Obama has been saying this week in Africa? Although his address to the ‘Muslim World’ a couple of years ago made the same Cameronian mistake, as Western pluralism should be inclusive of Muslims, like anyone else.) I am not competent to judge Derek’s historical analysis: from my reading of the July 2015 issue of History Today, a special edition on the Magna Carta, I would say his opinion of King John is a little more indulgent than that of Sean McGlynn’s, while his textual analysis is more incisive. Derek’s version of America’s adoption of the Carta’s symbolic value is close to Alexander Lock’s interpretation. But Derek’s narrative is much livelier. (A third piece in the magazine, by Graham Seel, head of history at St. Paul’s School, explores a canvas by Charles Sims of King John at Runnymede that hangs in St. Stephen’s Hall. Derek does not mention this work, but it provides a fascinating contrast to Normand’s more familiar and romantic creation. It would be an absorbing exercise to compare the two.)

Derek writes with tremendous verve, and has a fine ear for well-balanced sentences. He has been slightly let down by his publisher, who sadly did not ensure that the legend on his map corresponds to the chapter titles identifying the places, and I would have liked to see a bibliography. No doubt these issues will be addressed in the forthcoming paperback edition. (Every reviewer has to find at least one quibble.) Never mind. Derek’s is a fine accomplishment. His book is a wonderfully entertaining account for anybody – especially those whose impression of the Charter may have been coloured by romanticised schoolboy lessons or by pious hyperbole from politicians. Please take a look at and order your copy.

I have been taking a particular interest in Britain’s form of liberal democracy recently, as part of my doctoral thesis addresses the question of why it was not strong enough in the 1930s to provide a coherent and vigorous philosophical antidote to the twin horrors of totalitarian Fascism and Communism. (For the time being, I shall leave my analysis for the thesis.) Thus I was intrigued by David Cameron’s recent pronouncements about promoting ‘British values’ in the face of Muslim extremism. I can’t help feeling that Cameron is still caught up in all the misguided multi-cultural jargon of the Jenkinsite 1970s, what with his references to the ‘Muslim community’ and ‘Muslim leaders’. For the essence of a modern pluralist society is that we should not compartmentalize – and thus stereotype   ̶  large groups of individuals into separate ‘communities’ , nor should we look for self-appointed ‘leaders’ to represent their interests. I am an atheist, but I am not a member of the ‘atheist community’ [I think you mean the ‘AHAA community’, namely Atheists, Heretics, Apostates and Agnostics. Ed.], and I do not look to ‘atheist leaders’ to represent my interests. I have an MP, or a senator, or a representative to do that for me, and I know he or she will not share all my beliefs, but it is his or her job to speak for all his or her constituents. And what about those members of a ‘community’ who ‘intermarry’, or reject the faith they were brought up in? They will feel marginalized and lost. Moreover, is it not true that some of those ‘leaders’ are the ones responsible for the mayhem, as the government of Tunisia is finding as it tries to clean up the mosques of radical influences?

I also noticed that an imam from Leeds told the BBC that he found Cameron’s speech redolent of ‘us versus them’ thinking, and I believe he is right, in that respect, at least. Religious beliefs should be a private affair: the secular laws of the land should apply to everyone (no tolerance of local shariah law, or Jewish courts, or Christian prayers at civil events, for example) and we should recognize the fast-growing trend of an increasing proportion of the population (in the UK and in the USA) defining themselves as religious non-believers, as well as more and more citizens who are offspring of so-called ‘mixed marriages’ (a term I deplore). Such persons are left out of these dim and depressing artificial sociological categories. Cameron needs some fresh advisors, and some fresh advice. Dismantle the Ministry for Communities! Stop stereotyping! Don’t listen to self-appointed ‘Leaders’! Respect Individual Rights, not Group Rights! Coldspur has Spoken!

The normal set of Commonplace items are available for inspection here. (July 31, 2015)

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