Monday June 15 2015 saw the British Monarch, Queen Elizabeth, lead the United Kingdom in the celebrations commemorating the Great Charter of Liberties known in Latin as Magna Carta. That marked 800 years of influence and impact through which England and the British Isles has transformed, metamorphosed, transitioned, triumphed, suffered great loss, led the cause of civilization, been a great empire , fought and won two world wars, all under the guiding influence of Magna Carta.
Back in university studying political science, conveniently branded Public Administration that time for fear of upsetting the hounds of Kamuzu Banda’s regime, I learnt about the peculiar dynamic structure of the British political system and democracy, that it never had a rigid constitution in every sense of the word. Instead, this genuine and true model of democratic government had evolved over time thanks to Magna Carta
It was, therefore, a moment of heightened curiosity and interest to me when I learnt over the past weekend of June 13 and June 15 2015 was going to be the 800th anniversary celebration of Magna Carta. It was during this inspired and diligent search for enlightenment on the history of Magna Carta that I came across the interview on Sky News of historian David Starkey which as a scholar of leadership I found most profoundly instructive and share his insights below.
David Starkey claims that the first Magna Carta of 1215 was the greatest ever humiliation of the Monarchy, apart from the execution of Charles I. The Magna Carta that was sealed 800 years ago was a complete failure because while it intended to end the civil wars between the King and the Barons it instead not only led to the renewal of the wars but actually resulted into a French invasion led by Prince Luis.
Starkey stated that the UK was commemorating the wrong anniversary because the real Magna Carta that was the beginning of the modern British Political system began in earnest with the various Magna Cartas, especially the one of 1216.
He stresses that the Magna Carta of 1216, a year later than the first came out at a time when the situation was very different because King John was dead and his innocent little son was crowned onto the throne and as is almost always the case, the sight of a little Royal melts hearts.
Threatened with the French invasion, Starkey claims that a brilliant, intelligent regent, a man called William the Marshal, who was a kind of a Tory Prime Minister, “unusually with brains,” as Starkey puts it, reissued Magna Carta but leaves out all the bad bits resulting in the Magna Carta of 1216 ending up with only two thirds of the length of the original from 1215.
Starkey claims that the 1216 Magna Carta left out everything that was revolutionary, republican and it left out all the difficult things about Jews, taxation and forest laws and instead it came up with a classic English compromise. Nobody gets exactly what they want. Everyone has to give up a little bit. But then everyone gets something.
The Barons get something, the Bishops, the King, the common lawyers and the church: all get something But no one gets everything. Compromise, compromise and compromise. That is how you do politics, Starkey says.
He goes on to say that the media, political commentators and the public at large may for years have rubbished politics, but there is only a single choice. If you do not have politics then you have war. Civil War. Pernicious, ugly civil war. With Magna Carta the UK learnt to compromise.
David Starkey concludes by saying that if the Magna Carta of 2015 had been made to stick, England would not have a Monarchy. It would instead have a chaotic, anarchic Republic like Poland. The importance of these years of the 13th century is that they made England lay the foundations of the parliamentary system into which Scotland and the rest of the British Isles slot. Whether they remain part of the project, going into the future, is another matter.