2015 – 048 The Magna Carta

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Many people regard Magna Carta as the first Constitutional guarantee of the basic liberties of the English-speaking world.

Fewer people know that Magna Carta wasn’t imposed on King John just because he abused his power (which after all has been true of most kings and governments throughout history), but because he had handed away the sovereignty of England to a foreign governing institution in Europe. That institution was The Holy Roman Empire.

John had unilaterally handed England to Pope Innocent because earlier arguments with Rome had left England under an interdict (a kind of nationwide ex-communication), so John was facing the possibility of an invasion from a strong, Catholic France with a papal blessing that would have made finding allies impossible and inevitably led to John’s defeat. To split his enemies, and peel away the Church from France, John gifted the pope sovereignty over his entire country and leased it back as the pope’s vassal. For a time, Britain was ruled from Europe.

For the barons at Runnymede, that was the last straw: they responded to the fundamental transfer of power out of their country and forced Magna Carta on John.

More than 500 years later, the (British) founders of the USA, in the very tradition of which Magna Carta was an early part, would make explicit the intuitive principle on which the Barons had acted then, and many have acted since: that the power to govern is delegated by the people governed, in whom it entirely resides. But that principle is so deep in the Anglo cultural psyche that even the barons who faced King John at Runnymede were not the first to state it in some way or another: the Charter of Liberties of Henry I had already formally established in the year 1100 that the rule of the king was by consent and that those who made the Law were not above it.

By this long-standing principle, power is lent by the people, in whom it resides, for a limited time to those in government for the purpose of protecting the rights of those people. A British prime minster today has not more right to give his country away to a foreign power than King John had to give the country away to a pope, and it makes no difference how the prime minister is chosen. And no king or prime minister has any more right to do either than a tenant of my house has to sell or give my house away just because he is temporarily living in it. Power to govern is no more possessed by those who are allowed temporarily to exercise it, than my house is possessed by the person temporarily allowed to live in it.

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