The government’s attack on Magna Carta undermines the foundation of our constitution

Magna Carta memorial, Runnymede, UK commemorating the Magna Carta which was sealed under oath by King John here in June 1215
Magna Carta Memorial by ttwff is licensed under CC BY 2.0

We all know of the Magna Carta, an iconic historic document, regarded by many as the key foundation of the rule of law in England and beyond. Its influence can be seen across the globe, a copy is enshrined in the US Capitol building in Washington, America, and it is even referenced in United Nations documents.

Boris Johnson has described it as “the foundation document of freedom and constitutional government in this country.” One of the great tenets of Magna Carta is that the monarch (and therefore the government) is under the law.

What is less well known is that Yorkshire barons were the mainstay of the Magna Carta barons, elected to enforce the charter in 1215 against the tyranny of King John. Sir James Holt’s classic book on the subject, The Northerners, reflects this. (Sir James was born at Bierley in West Yorkshire.)

The Yorkshire Magna Carta barons included William de Forz (Skipton), John de Lacy (Pontefract), William de Mowbray (Thirsk) and Robert de Ros (Helmsley). In the words of Professor Nigel Saul, they had:

“Suffered at the hands of John and had a burning sense of grievance”.

King John’s failure to respect the law had triggered a rebellion that ended with the barons seizing London and forcing the king to agree to the charter at Runnymede. It greatly restricted his powers.

Boris Johnson’s push to break international law is in effect an attack on Magna Carta. It undermines this foundation of the British constitution.

It was a long and bloody struggle to ensure that governments are not above the law. Even after Runnymede, repeated attempts by autocratic governments to place themselves above the law had to be defeated. Charles I was executed after a bloody conflict. James I was removed more peacefully in the Glorious Revolution, with the aid of the Dutch.


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Now, we must again ensure that the government is not above the law. The great Putin fan, Dominic Cummings, may wish Britain were like Russia, which broke international law to seize Crimea. But our long history has shown that it does not usually end well for those who seek to break Magna Carta.

The Magna Carta barons forged well; and still after 800 years, the principles of the charter should be a bulwark against the attack on our freedoms by the present corrupt government. But in our system, where a government controlling a compliant majority in parliament can repeal whatever law it chooses, whenever it wants, even if they break those principles, it is now threatened by a bunch of would-be dictatorial autocrats.


Richard is a former MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber and was the Labour leader in the European Parliament. He sits on the Labour Party national executive committee and is a member of the shadow cabinet. He is honorary vice president of the UK European Movement and honorary president of Grimethorpe Colliery Band.

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