Why magna carta still matters

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Steven Rares*

  1. In the context of human civilisation, 800 years is a long time. The 1215 world of kings and barons negotiating the terms of settlement of a brewing civil war in the meadow at Runnymede, near Windsor like the plays of Shakespeare 400 years later, strikes many chords, some discordant, some harmonious, with today’s world.

  2. Our social structure, language, apparel and physical environments are very different, yet, like Shakespeare’s writings, the central themes are timeless. King John needed revenue to finance his proposed new crusade. The barons felt they had been overtaxed and that the king had governed in a manner that had whittled away their ancient rights and privileges. That scenario resonates today – we complain that we, too, are overtaxed and our rights are being taken away, not by monarchs, but by governments nonetheless. So, is there something to celebrate in this year of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta or is it a case, to use modern expression of the evolved French language of the time of “plus ça change, plus c′est la même chose”?

  3. Before attempting to answer that, it might help to give some perspective if I repeat a discussion that I had in Beijing last year with a judge of the Supreme People’s Court of the People’s Republic of China. We were talking about President Xi Jinping’s determination to implement the rule of law in China. My Western-educated colleague told me that the President’s vision for the rule of law was not what we would understand it to be. He said that in the last 20-30 years, well over 300 million people from rural areas had migrated to Chinese cities but they did not understand or obey the laws that governed life in those cities. Many of them did not obey the road rules, spat in the street, did not consider the impact of their behaviours on others around them and did not do what local authorities needed done to keep society orderly.

  4. President Xi, he said, wanted these people to understand that the rule of law required that they obey the law, to benefit everyone. My judicial friend then made the telling point that after the United States had fought its Civil War in the 1860s to abolish slavery, it amended its Constitution to provide that all persons were entitled to the equal protection of the laws. But, in his words, it had taken another 90 years for the Supreme Court of the United States to decide in Brown v Board of Education1 that black children were legally entitled to travel with and go to the same schools as white children. He concluded: “So you in the West cannot expect us to do everything in one generation.”

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