Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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Strange times make strange bedfellows. When he resigned to trigger a by-election and campaign for lost liberties, David Davis doffed an obligatory cap to Magna Carta – sealed at Runnymede 793 years and five days ago. I have some good news for the maverick Tory, and some not so good. On the positive side, a recent book could help him in his long march back to freedom. It traces a proud lineage of battles against the over-mighty state with the "Great Charter" to hand. And it does so with a passion, eloquence and lyrical reverence for the hard-won freedoms of Old England that take the breath away. On the other hand, its author could be called the finest socialist historian in the US. Except that, I suspect, he might even prefer "communist".

Peter Linebaugh was a student of the great EP Thompson who, with him, co-authored a classic study of the hang-'em-and-transport-'em class-based "justice" of the 18th century, Albion's Fatal Tree. Later, The London Hanged offered a masterly – and moving – local variation on that theme. With Marcus Rediker, The Many-headed Hydra presented the unruly Atlantic milieu of pirates, sailors and runaway slaves as a crucible of underclass revolt. It made those wild buccaneers into the seaborne forebears of Che Guevara. Indeed, Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow (in Pirates of the Caribbean) captured the Linebaugh-Rediker thesis rather well.

Linebaugh can often sound like the most romantic of radical historians. In The Magna Carta Manifesto: liberties and commons for all (University of California Press, £14.95), he soars higher than ever with an almost rhapsodic account of the way that the rights wrested from King John on the "lovely field" of Runnymede have stiffened the spines of many later freedom-fighters. To him, the heirs of 1215 range from the Levellers in the English Revolution to America's Founding Fathers; from anti-slavery militants to civil-rights agitators. Mired in the "war on terror", he argues, we need its shield more than ever. "Magna Carta is required to open the secret state. Magna Carta is needed for the prisoners in Guantánamo Bay. Magna Carta is needed for the prisoners who have been rendered to torture chambers in other countries... Magna Carta is needed to condemn torture altogether."

Linebaugh's rhetorical flights do come down to earth. He shows how Magna Carta was (in his analyisis) misread and distorted to buttress a ruling-class doctrine of "private property, laissez-faire and English civilisation". He mocks its elevation into a misunderstood "sacred cow", and quotes the peerless parody in 1066 and All That: "That everyone should be free (except the common people)... That the Barons should not be tried except by a jury of other Barons who would understand."

Crucially, Linebaugh maintains that the "common people" do count. If we pay proper attention to the "Charter of the Forest" that joined Magna Carta in 1217 (with both ratified by Edward I in 1297), then ancient economic rights to "commons" – to subsistence and livelihood – will loom as large as protection from bad laws and unjust rulers.

William Morris would love this book; and so, I think, would William Blake. For me, it threw into glaring relief the curious paradox of modern British politics. So-called "conservatives" and New Labour clones seem to believe in obliterating every stubborn memory of the past to maximise the profits of corporate business or to gratify the security state's voracious appetite for power. For a genuine devotion to history and heritage, look to the tradition-conscious Left, aided by those High Tory relics with whom they share so much. So, if David Davis is truly sincere in his ecumenical mission, he should give Peter Linebaugh a call.

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