Today marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta – a watershed agreement signed between King John (of Robin Hood fame) and British barons in 1215. For many of us the only thing we can recall about the Magna Carta is its year of creation, yet this document is far more than a historical footnote or dusty relic. Initially, you may wonder why this document is being celebrated to the extent that it is, especially since this anniversary is being celebrated in many countries outside the UK as well.
At face value, an 800 year old agreement between two tiers of the English aristocracy may not seem relevant to our modern world, but the Magna Carta is held aloft as one of the earliest democratic documents. The Magna Carta is the result of the successful attempt by English barons to restrict the powers of the king. The document places restrictions on the whims of the monarchy, thus beginning the transition to constitutional monarchy and democratic governance in the UK. The document enshrines the notion that the rule of law is the highest voice in the land, and that no one, including the king, is above the law.
Prime Minister David Cameron addresses the question of the document’s modern importance, postulating in a speech to mark the anniversary;
“Why do people set such store by Magna Carta? Because they look to history. They see how the great charter shaped the world, for the best part of a millennium, helping to promote arguments for justice and for freedom.”
The fact that the UK is one of the oldest democracies in the world, combined with its exportation of parliamentary governance in the wake of empire, has caused this document to have global reach. The Magna Carta has also been the inspiration for later constitutions, such as the efforts of the American Founding Fathers. It is important to note that the democratic merits of the Magna Carta are amplified by its historical legacy. The document itself is concerned with protecting the rights of a tiny powerful landholding minority: it doesn’t employ the kind of universal language we associate with democracy today.
Nevertheless, the Magna Carta remains one of the most important documents in the Western tradition, and a key stepping stone on the road towards rule of law and democracy. It was one of the earliest efforts to role back the tide of absolute monarchy in Europe, starting a trend that would last for centuries.