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The search for “British” values begins, as it must, precisely 800 years ago, when bad King John sloshed his way through Runnymede meadow to seal the Magna Carta.  He ripped it up a few weeks later, when he felt safe from the thuggish barons to whom it had vouchsafed its stated liberties. In the 17th century it was re-imagined and re-invented by two very remarkable but very different Englishmen in the course of the struggle against Stuart absolutism. Chief Justice Coke, sacked for suggesting that the King was not above the law, became a scholarly MP whose Institutes persuaded the Inns of Court that Magna Carta was a central part of the common law. Two of its provisions deserve a place in any “British” Bill of Rights:

No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined . . . except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.

To no-one will we sell, to no-one will we deny or delay any right or justice.

Coke drafted an updated version of this “Great Charter of the Liberties of England” — the “Petition of Right” of 1628. It emphasised that no free citizen should be “imprisoned, confined, or in sundry other ways molested” without access to habeas corpus (the process whereby anyone who lost their liberty could challenge immediately in court the lawfulness of his detention). King Charles I pretended to accept the Petition, but then (like King John) reneged, and prorogued Parliament for 11 years. The puritan MPs came back with a vengeance in 1641 to fight for those very rights that we now regard as fundamental: the sovereignty of Parliament; representative government (at least, representative of propertied men), the independence of the judiciary, religious toleration (for Jews, Quakers and Baptists, if not for Catholics) and an end to torture. These were British (to be precise, English) achievements — torture continued as a routine part of continental law for several centuries. The Civil Wars (1642-48) left one in ten Englishmen dead in muddy fields — a greater toll than the First World War — and their sacrifices for the rights of the people against the King and his bishops deserve a reference in any statement of British liberty.

The first describably “modern” statement of rights came with the work of a second — and very different — figure, namely “Freeborn John” Lilburne, who earned this moniker when he was whipped through the streets of London by order of the Star Chamber, for importing Puritan literature. His “Leveller” movement produced “The Agreement of the People”, subject of the remarkable Putney Debates in 1647 (recently staged at the National Theatre, in Caryl Churchill’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire). Several of its clauses could be reproduced, with only a few updates, in a “British” Bill of Rights, most notably the provision that all should be treated equally under the law:

That in all laws made or to be made, every person may be bound alike: and that no tenure, estate, charter, degree, birth or place confer any exemption from the ordinary course of legal proceedings whereunto others are subjected.

There was also a ban on conscription, which (pace Prince Harry) is a right deserving of recognition, because “the matter of impressing and constraining any of us to serve in the wars is against our freedom”. The principle that electorates “ought to be indifferently proportioned according to the number of inhabitants” might be made part of the right to democracy.

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July 16th, 2015
8:07 AM
Ummm, SOVEREIGNTY, Geoffrey?

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