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History 101: The Great Charter

The signing of the Magna Carta or Great Charter in 1215 was the first time that something like the concept of democracy was imposed by those who serve upon those who rule

King John, (The ultimate bad guy in the Robin Hood movies) ruled in the absence of his brother King Richard (The Lionheart). John was thought of as a pretender to the throne. He ruled poorly and did not enjoy the respect of his subjects whose loyalty remained with the absent Richard. 

At Runnymede, he found himself cornered by an army of barons, peasants and serfs. These subjects demanded the right for all ranks and stations of men to due legal process. They argued that ‘A man must have the right to face his accuser, be he King or common man‘. They contended that it was unacceptable to punish someone on the basis of unsubstantiated allegation, or hearsay evidence. They challenged the King’s right to imprison, execute or enslave whomsoever he chose. (History relates that John Lakeland was not the fairest of monarchs).

In the 13th century, like today, rulers didn’t give up privileges willingly. No doubt a King with more courage and integrity would have gone down or stayed up fighting. But perhaps a better King would not have found himself in such straits. John was not of that stuff. Looking out at the representatives of the people camped around – knights with lance and mace, peasants with pike or quarterstaff and archers like the legendary Robin Hood and his Merry Men arrayed against him – he cowardly signed away the devine right and duty of English Kings to absolute rule. 

No longer could obvious injustice go unchallenged, no more could a King execute someone on a whim. The signing of the Magna Carta signalled the start of democratic process and is acknowledged as the origin of English common law.

Often the class system of medieval feudalism based on birth is decried today as being demonstrably unfair, and it was. The major difference was that it was not a consumption based society, there was disparity between the rich and the poor, the peasant and the aristocrat, but in reality the aristocracy had few opportunities to consume a great deal more than the poor. In times of plenty all ate well. If famine hit the land then the rich starved last but they still starved. In war King and commoner fought and died side by side. This is not so today. 

Those were golden times indeed. Things have degenerated significantly since. Today there is greater disparity than ever before. In 2000 CEO’s on average got eight times as much as workers. In 2006 they got 19 times as much. This trend is similar in other western market-based economies. Various so-called anti-terrorism measures have resulted in larger numbers of people being denied due legal process. In New Zealand the vast majority of convicted criminals come from the low income sector of society. If a poor man is caught stealing a car he goes to jail but company directors who fleece shareholders of millions walk away free men and wealthy with it. 

What hasn’t changed for over a thousand years is human nature. Those stupid enough or cowardly enough to allow themselves to be oppressed will be so. The vigilance of the many is required to prevent the greedy and power obsessed few from obtaining control. The tide of progressive corporatisation and centralisation of capital and power has already swamped many a modern day peasant. But the later day lords and rulers no longer fight famine or foe beside them.

If we wish to have rights we must be prepared to fight for them. If we want a fair go, like those at Runneymede, we must stand together and then maybe the battle may be won without violence. History tells us that eventually victory goes to the strongest. And the strongest are those who most believe in their cause, those willing to sacrifice most to succeed. This is why larger, better-equipped and seemingly stronger forces often lose battles against apparently weaker foes that possess greater resolve. 

The problem is that those who hold wealth and power, in accordance with the nature that spurred them to acquire it, are loath to relinquish it. Sharing runs counter to their nature and their self-interest.

Concessions towards obtaining more equitable distribution of wealth and greater freedom can only be won by a united populace who demand justice and are willing to make sacrifices to obtain it. Thomas Jefferson said ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty’. History has shown again and again, that merely asking, cap in hand, for a fair deal only results in the gradual undermining of individual liberty and an eventual descent into slavery. To stem the rising tide that fast erodes our freedom people must stand together and say with a united voice, “enough.”


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