Lincoln Drill Hall

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Security Services flawed tactics

The Guardian on 28 February 2015 published an article by David Davis MP, former shadow Home Secretary and champion of freedom. His critique was of the security services and their unwillingness to bring to justice those who threaten our democracy through terror. This struck a chord with the comments on Mr Davis made by historian Dr David Starkey in his excellent one hour TV programme on Magna Carta broadcast on the BBC in February 2015. Dr Starkey reminded the viewer that Davis has resigned over the issue of detention without trial. Davis sets a brave and difficult challenge. We want to be safe from terror, but this must be within the rule of law and not outside it.

In the same edition of the Guardian, Polly Toynbee invites readers to become Members of the Guardian to safeguard its independence. This has to be right. It is vital that a newspaper like the Guardian should be free to give space to a Conservative like Davis. I hope that an influential membership will never have power to call the shots over and against the editor.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Broke

Broke is a play by the very talented Paper Birds. It was very well received at the Edinburgh Fringe, I was lucky enough to see it at Lincoln Drill Hall.

It explores debt, how it builds and then its legacy. The writers saw a point of origin in the 1980's with Mrs Thatcher's attack on working communities and her encouragement to everyone to become middle class. It is middle class aspiration where the driver for ever increasing borrowing can be found.

They explore individual and government debt side by side.

It is frightening just how easy it is for someone, making their way through life, to gather around them the millstone of debt, and even more chilling to see just how hard it is to get out.

Perhaps more scary is their analysis of government and how a consumer economy can only function with ever increasing debt. It is the emperor's new clothes, it only works until some is brave enough to blow the whistle.

For me, the play brought back ideas contained in my blogs from 2009 when I was writing Broken Bonds, a novel about the banking crisis and its impact. My more recent blogs are about Magna Carta and the abuse of power. I wonder, was Mrs Thatcher's push for deregulation, which I still see as the heart of the problem, an almighty abuse of power?

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Magna Carta and why we should all vote in May 2015

The Reform Bill was introduced to Parliament in 1831, the year my grandfather, Alfred Hamlyn Williams, was born. When the Bill became an Act of Parliament it began the process of injecting a note of realism into parliamentary democracy which has continued through the emancipation of women to the universal franchise we enjoy, or are supposed to enjoy, today. In May of 2015 there will be another test of this enjoyment when we will see just how many of those eligible actually vote in the general election. There is a disconnect between the paper and the practice.

Disconnection can be traced back to the document which many assert is the bedrock of democracy, Magna Carta. In 2015 we celebrate the 800th anniversary of the sealing by King John of this charter of some 3,500 words written in medieval Latin, which, but for the serendipity of history, may have been forgotten.  

Claire Brey, the curator of the forthcoming Magna Carta exhibition at the British Library, told Dr David Starkey, in his excellent TV programme on Magna Carta, about the phone calls she receives on a fairly regular basis from members of the public who think they have been treated unfairly, asking how they might quote Magna Carta in the particular argument they are having. Of course she has to reply that it probably can’t help, nevertheless the complainants are right in seeing this ancient document representing fairness in the face of oppression.

The story of the big charter, as opposed to the smaller charter of the forrest, was all about English Barons seeking to temper the excessive demands, mainly for money, of their king, John. The story continues that, no sooner had it been sealed, King John ran to the Pope to have it annulled. 

On 5 February 2015 the House of Lords staged an exhibition of the four remaining engrossments of Magna Carta which they placed alongside the Reform Act and the 1629 Petition of Right. I was lucky enough to be invited to the exhibition and I was struck in a number of quite different ways. 

The four engrossments look different, but David Carpenter, in his new book Magna Carta, assures us that their wording is almost identical. The manuscripts are written in tiny neat letters and I couldn't help thinking of the painstaking care that the clerks must have taken in producing their art, for art it is. I was then drawn to the thinking by Archbishop Langton and others, painstakingly built over many years, which arrived at the view of kingship and the exercise of power that Magna Carta expresses. These ideas were hedged in by a great deal of detail about the particular arguments of the Barons, but at its heart there was a delicate green shoot of how societies should function. My wonder is how it survived.

Magna Carta was reissued and revised many times in the thirteenth century and finally ‘became law’ in 1297, although some will argue that, with legal ‘time’ beginning only in 1189, Magna Carta was itself an iteration of Common Law. 

The Parliament exhibition of the Petition of Right was the next stop on the journey. This was again an argument about kingship. The Stuarts sought to assert that they were kings by divine right. The Petition of Right, challenged this and it was further and significantly tempered by the Bill of Rights of 1689 under which William and Mary came to the British throne. 

With the work of the great seventeenth the century lawyer, Sir Edward Coke, we move across the Atlantic and see Magna Carta quoted in the foundation documents of many States and indeed in the US Constitution itself. I was lucky enough to attend the academic symposium run alongside the exhibition of Magna Carta at the Library of Congress in Washington. The exhibition pointed with great clarity to the way Magna Carta has been viewed in the US over two centuries rather than getting bogged down too much in its origins. For the founding fathers, there was no doubt that bad King John was then bad King George. 

In the USA, the power of the President is tempered by the Constitution; in Britain the power of the Government is tempered by Parliament. This is where disconnection comes, since in reality President Obama has his power tempered, not by the Constitution, but  by Congress with the effect of stalemate. Prime Minister Cameron has his power tempered, not by Parliament, by his fear of non re-election by a minority of electors. But it is more than this, as David Starkey pointed out, both governments ignore the core principles of Magna Carta with their assertion of the right to imprison terrorist suspects without trial. In her insightful short radio programme, Helena Kennedy took a slightly tangential view and saw governmental power tempered by corporations which outmuscle most nation states, principally the massive financial institutions and internet providers. 

So, where does this leave us? In this country, with an urgent need for all electors to use their vote in putting pressure on government to adhere to Magna Carta but as importantly stand up to the shadowy corporate King Johns of the 21st century.


St Albans Cathedral where the Magna Carta tour began in 2014