June 13, 2008

Editing the Great Charter

Some, including British statesman Tony Benn, are claiming that Magna Carta has been "repealed." They're a little behind times.

What happened is that Britain's House of Commons voted to extend the length of time a prisoner may be held without charges being filed from 28 days to 42 days. That is a bit extreme, and I tend to agree with opposition leader David Cameron, who said, "Terrorists want to destroy our freedom, and when we trash our liberties, we do their work for them."

While it's true that the right to not be imprisoned without knowing the charges against you is included in Magna Carta, so are a lot of other things. Really useful things that are pillars of democracy, like allowing the king to levy a tax to pay for the marriage of his eldest daughter.

OK, bad example.

It is true that many of our diplomatic stanchions—like the right to a speedy trial—are descended from Magna Carta.

But to declare the demise of the entire document on the basis of one vote on one issue is rather like saying the Constitution was "repealed" when we threw out the Eighteenth Amendment.

In fact, like the U.S. Constitution, Magna Carta has undergone changes throughout its history. The U.K.'s Statute Law Database shows that most of Magna Carta's clauses have been repealed, though some were revised and incorporated into modern legislation.

Others were eliminated from modern law, and with good reason. For example, Clause 54: "No one shall be seized or imprisoned on the appeal of a woman for the death of any one but her husband." Yeah. Not exactly a pillar of egalitarianism, that one.

So let's not get the idea that Magna Carta is some kind of unchangeable holy writ—the Gospel of Runnymede—for which we face plagues and damnation should we add to or take away from it.

Magna Carta is a great document. It defined a great moment in history when the nobility, faced with a tyrant, made him understand that he, too, is bound by the law. But it is not carved in stone, nor should it be.

I don't believe in coincidences; I am certain it is Providence that this all came about on the heels of the National Archives' receiving a 1297 copy of Magna Carta. It's now on display just down the hall from the Bill of Rights. There's an article about that in the current issue of American Heritage magazine, which must have gone to press weeks before the current British brouhaha. It's also worth noting that this Sunday, June 15, is the 793rd anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta by King John.

No comments:

Post a Comment