Without irony the entirety of the British establishment descended on Runnymede yesterday with all the pomp and ceremony the British state can muster. Archbishops, the royal family and the Prime Minister opined on the great document which had forever altered “the balance of power between the governed and the government”. It’s a pity that for over a decade government after government has been desperate to tilt the scales of power once again towards a Leviathan state, and against the people.
From the banning of ideas the Home Secretary doesn’t like, to draconian anti-terrorism laws, restrictions on protests, a new tough press law, to attacks on the Human Rights Act and new sweeping surveillance powers, our freedom is being slowly but surely eroded. The British state may like to boast of gifting freedom to the rest of the world but it’s an empty boast as the government gets bossier and more intrusive.
This weekend, 400 people descended on the Free Word Centre to hold a rather different Magna Carta celebration. The mood was upbeat (partly fueled by the Magna Carta ale) but no one was under any illusions: the challenges to our civil liberties are huge.
Perhaps of greatest concern is the death of privacy. The weekend after the government’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation (David Anderson QC) described the law governing surveillance as “undemocratic, unnecessary and – in the long run – intolerable”, those gathered felt the data being collected by corporations and the state had become too intrusive.
It’s likely to get even worse. The mass surveillance powers of the intelligence agencies which, if you own a smartphone, include the ability to track your movements to the nearest metre, capture who you communicate with, listen in to your private conversations, even film you unaware, could all be extended to the police. Suddenly, at a stroke of a police officer’s pen, your private life will be no more. Your smart TV lurking in the corner of your living room may be used against you and your family. Even though a Conservative-chaired committee of Parliament rejected these proposals just two years ago, it’s increasingly likely legislation will bring them back in September.
David Cameron can’t invoke the memory of Magna Carta, a pushback by the barons against the use of arbitrary power by the King, and then give a variety of state bodies across the country arbitrary powers to capture the data of citizens who are entirely innocent of any crime. If the Prime Minister truly wants to commemorate the memory of Magna Carta he should back David Anderson’s call for surveillance to be signed off by judicial commissioners, rather than Ministers, to put safeguards on the powers of politicians. I won’t be holding my breath for this.
After Magna Carta was signed, King John ignored it. It took his death from “a surfeit of peaches”, a new young King and a second attempt in 1225 to finally secure the rights guaranteed in Magna Carta. It took a civil war to establishment the supremacy of Parliament over our unelected Monarch. It took the Tolpuddle Martyrs to guarantee trade union rights. It took the Chartists and the Suffragettes to extend the right to vote to everyone over 18. It took the horrors of World War Two for Winston Churchill to task Tory lawyer David Maxwell Fyfe to draw up the European Convention on Human Rights, which (at least for now) guarantees our liberties. All of our rights were not established in 1215, this is merely where the story of our fight for liberty begins.
The parading of the establishment at Runnymede - the royals, our parliamentary barons and established church - reminds us of the stability of the state and how Magna Carta lay the foundations for our democracy. Yet, it should also serve as a reminder of the scale of the fight it took to secure the modest liberty we enjoy today. With new challenges on the horizon to our digital habeas corpus and our democracy, we can’t be complacent. 800 years on, the fight continues.
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