I know there are probably more important things in the Budget, but I for one (and probably, literally, the only one) am won over by the government’s decision to spend £1 million to celebrate the Magna Carta anniversary next year.
As I’ve written before, there’s a strong case for making Magna Carta day, June 15, our national holiday: the other choice, St George’s Day, is too close to Easter and May Day and in any case too meaningless; all we get on April 23 are a load of tortured essays in the press about what Englishness means and its invented traditions, which has sort of become a tradition in itself.
Magna Carta does mean something, however. Although drawn up to protect the interests of barons to curtail an incompetent, lecherous drunk on the throne, it became the basis of a constitution. The rights that the barons had fought for were later confirmed by Edward I, after he had won the Second Barons’ War, and had had the rebel leader (his uncle) Simon de Montfort cut into four pieces and his testicles hung around his nose. Much later 16th and 17th century jurists cited the charter, and its most important Clause, 39, is one of three still on the statute book.
Yet as Daniel Hannan wrote in his excellent book How We Invented Freedom, this ‘English Torah’ is rather neglected here compared to the United States. The American Bar Association left a memorial in Runnymede, and when a copy was taken to New York in 1939 some 14 million people came to see it. The US House of Representatives also contains a portrait of De Montfort.
Partly this discrepancy is because America was founded by Whigs, who were more attached to the constitutional tradition of which Magna Carta was the foundation (as Hannan points out, half of Harvard’s graduates in the 1640s fought in the English Civil War for Parliament). But it may be that America has had more need for constitutional patriotism in order to assimilate newcomers into the culture. England never has.
Until now; Britain dealt with mass immigration first with the policy of multiculturalism, which proved a miserable failure, then with vague New Labour ideas about Britishness being defined as ‘tolerance and fair play’. You can’t simply define a nation in such way, because nationhood is about a share history and relationships. Magna Carta obviously provides a much better national story; if we’re going to define Britishness or Englishness by anything, you can do worse than the rule of law.