Having most recently appeared on our screens in characteristically forthright style on Question Time in an entertaining head-to-head with Mehdi ‘Kuffar’ Hasan (not to mention the rest of the panel), David Starkey returned to BBC2 this evening in his professional guise as a popular historian, commemorating the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. Indeed, this year also marks two other significant anniversaries: the 600th of Agincourt, and the bicentennial of Waterloo, but it would seem churlish to focus upon victories over our nearest continental neighbour, rather than celebrating a significant step towards something that we have yet to satisfactorily achieve: democracy, which remains very much a flawed work in progress.
Starkey was in his element, providing not only the story of how Magna Carta itself came to be formulated and amended, but how it shaped subsequent law, governance, rights and reputation not only in England, but in one of its daughter societies – the United States, leading Starkey to comment that “It matters as much now, as then.” Insofar as Magna Carta provided the English and the societies that they later fashioned – “the Anglo-Saxon world”, as Starkey termed it – with three key freedoms in the realms of life, liberty and property, it has provided inspiration to those who would wish to place a check upon an overbearing sovereign power ever since. This novel and revolutionary idea proved not to be to the tastes of those of a despotic bent in thirteenth-century Europe, just as it is not to the taste of those of an authoritarian cast of mind today. King John had given his seal to the document under duress and immediately appealed to Pope Innocent III for its annulment. Innocent duly obliged, with the Pope adjudging it to be unjust, illegal and harmful to the royal rights and to the English people.
The same tensions between the sovereign and the governed would be played out under Charles I, with Edward Coke’s ‘Petition of Right’ recapitulating many of the themes of Magna Carta in 1628. Nonetheless, as history demonstrated, Charles was not able to reconcile his concept of divine right with parliamentary checks upon the royal will, hence his bloody demise in 1649. Again, with the bloodless coup that was the Glorious Revolution of 1689, and the revolt of Englishmen who became known as the Founding Fathers of the United States a century later, Magna Carta loomed large in the minds of those who rebelled against overweening royal authority. It was this that led Starkey across the Atlantic, to examine the seminal impact of Magna Carta upon the development of US constitutionalism, noting that beneath Washington’s Capitol Building is a full copy of the Magna Carta, written in gold lettering. On the right-hand door of the US Supreme Court, one of the bronze panels depicts Magna Carta, and it is that Court which has cited Magna Carta some 400 times since the 1790s, including against Richard Nixon.
Starkey ended his piece by bringing matters fully up to date, questioning what power and relevance Magna Carta still possesses in the fearful security-obsessed age ushered in by the 9/11 attacks, noting how the subsequent War on Terror had led to rights and liberties taking a back seat to security, with phenomena such as extraordinary rendition and detention without trial making an appearance: “Every passing month brings yet more infringements of personal liberties, in the name of the War on Terror.” Are we, he asked, “perhaps even, sleepwalking towards authoritarianism?” Is freedom being sacrificed to security? “In this day and age, is Magna Carta little more than a myth?”
For Starkey, the greatest challenges today would appear to be to the concepts of Parliament, and even England itself. Both are being called into question.