Magna Carta’s 800th – looking back on 2015
The octocentenary of Magna Carta was a huge success internationally and in Australia in terms of promotion of the event and discussion of Magna Carta’s enduring significance as a ‘charter of liberties’.
The international highlight was the bringing together for exhibition at the British Library in London of the four original surviving Magna Carta manuscripts. Never before had they been together in one place. Around the world, especially in Commonwealth countries and the United States, celebrations and commemorations occurred at official and community levels.
The only places where Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary was not commemorated were those countries whose governments are threatened by its commitment to the rule of law and the wider ideal of democracy.
In Australia, the Museum played its part with a popular exhibition called ‘Magna Carta: an Australian story’ and with the creation of a Magna Carta website. The exhibition, created with the assistance of the British Library, explores the history and relevance of Magna Carta from an Australian perspective. We also hosted a popular public lecture by Human Rights Commissioner Dr Gillian Triggs and held a mightily successful Medieval Fair in June, which brought more than ten thousand visitors into the building and courtyards.
We ran blog posts too, about the Great Charter:
- Magna Carta: The eight hundredth anniversary draws nearer
- Simon De Montfort and the 750th anniversary of the first parliament
- Magna Carta: How did it survive? Is it relevant today?
Discussion in the media centred on whether the Magna Carta was still relevant. A consensus emerged, I think, that said, yes, it is still relevant but we now need a Magna Carta for the Internet Age.
A disappointment for me personally is that there is still no epic movie about the struggle against King John that forced him to seal the document in 1215 and the civil wars that followed to ensure that the charter would be implemented. And why is there no excellent documentary series, along the lines of Ken Burns’ The Civil War (which was about the 1860s American civil war)?
It’s certainly a ripping yarn – and one that changed the world.
In looking back over the year of Magna Carta’s octocentenary, it is appropriate to consider the condition of democracy in the world and our own liberties in Australia.
The best source for measuring liberty in the world is Freedom House, which commenced its annual reports in 1972. It uses the following indices: Political rights, political pluralism and participation, functioning of government, freedom of expression and belief, associational and organisational rights, rule of law and personal autonomy and individual rights.
The freest countries tend to be those that have been influenced by Magna Carta and experienced democratic revolutions in the modern era: UK, USA, some Latin American countries and western European countries. I must say, though, as a personal view, that I am perplexed as to how the USA can continue to secure a top score when it persists with the death penalty and has the highest rate of imprisonment of any country. (Source: PRB.org )
Anyway, while there has been an impressive increase in Free Countries around the world from 44 in 1972 to 89 in 2014, and Partly Free Countries from 38 to 55 over the same period, Freedom House in 2015 has reported that,
‘More aggressive tactics by authoritarian regimes and an upsurge in terrorist attacks contributed to a disturbing decline in global freedom in 2014. Freedom in the World 2015 found an overall drop in freedom for the ninth consecutive year’. Of the 195 countries assessed, 89 (46 percent) were rated Free, 55 (28 percent) Partly Free, and 51 (26 percent) Not Free.
Australia 2015: freedom as the ‘normative culture’
How does Australia rate?
We are a Free Country with high ratings for each indice, but on the ‘Rule of Law’ indice, the Freedom in the World 2015 report highlights an issue of concern which is directly relevant to Magna Carta:
‘Antiterrorism laws have tightened since 2001. Legislation enacted in 2005, with a 10-year sunset clause, allows police to detain suspects without charge’.
Clause 40 of Magna Carta specifically sought protection from detention without charge:
‘To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay, right or justice’.
According to the Human Rights Commissioner, Dr Gillian Triggs:
‘Over the last 15 years or so, the major political parties have agreed with each other to pass laws that threaten some of the most fundamental rights and freedoms that we have inherited from our common law tradition. For, over the last decade, particularly since the attack in 2001 on the twin towers in America, Australian parliaments have passed scores of laws that infringe our democratic freedoms of speech, association and movement, the right to a fair trial and the prohibition on arbitrary detention’.
At the annual Human Rights Dinner Speech this year she talked about Magna Carta’s legacy and concluded that:
‘the most effective, if long term, solution [to threats to liberties] is to improve our education of young Australians so they better understand and value the Constitutional protections for democracy and the rule of law. It has become vital that we develop a normative culture that supports liberties, and challenges executive overreach even though these liberties may not have the full force of legislation’.
In joining with scores of countries and millions of people around the world who commemorated Magna Carta’s 800th, the Museum has been doing just that, and will continue to play an engaging and dynamic role.