When was the Magna Carta signed? A Brit asked this question from an American friend during a business lunch at a New York restaurant. When the American shook his head in ignorance, displaying the average American’s trouble with history, the Brit, with his nose in the air, said twelve fifteen. The American looked at his watch and said, “Oh, I missed it by 15 minutes.”
If this is a quotable joke, what happened in 2012 was a public embarrassment for British Prime Minister David Cameron. When US talk show host David Letterman asked Cameron when the Magna Carta was signed, a confident Cameron replied: “1215, on an island in the Thames.” Well, it was pointed out to him that Runnymede where it was signed was not an island but an open space. Cameron was then asked whether he knew what the literal translation of ‘Magna Carta’ was. The Eton educated Cameron was stumped. All what he could say was: “Again, you are testing me.” Letterman replied: “Oh, it would be good if you knew this.” Cameron said: “Yeah, well it would be….”
A commercial break saved the day for Cameron. When the show resumed, Lettermen told viewers, “Magna Carta literally means the Great Charter.”
Jokes and jigsaws apart, politicians and civic rights activists in Britain and the United States often invoke the Magna Carta when they see an erosion of liberties or feel the freedom they enjoy needs further guarantees.
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth chats with Prime Minister David Cameron at the Magna Carta 800th Anniversary Commemoration event in Runnymede, Surrey. Reuters
On Monday, the world marked the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. But the celebrations were largely confined to Britain, and, on a lesser scale, the United States, whereas it should have been a grand global event. There were no democracy seminars, fairs or carnivals at global level to mark this great event, to which we owe constitutional democracy.
In many democracies, Sri Lanka included, the day dawned, and disappeared with little or no celebrations that could have been used as a platform to reinvigorate the commitment of those in power to democratic principles. Civil society in Sri Lanka also failed to seize the event to expose the democracy deficiency in the country. Civil society in Sri Lanka could have kindled a countrywide debate on the state of democracy.
Of course, there was a gala ceremony in Runnymede, 32 km west of Central London on Monday to mark the 800th anniversary of the Great Charter, regarded as the touchstone of modern democracy and the font of freedom. Attended by the royals, the Lords and governmental leaders, the event saw Prime Minister Cameron, by now an expert on the Magna Carta, hailing its spirit and championing a British Bill of Rights. If Sri Lanka – or for that matter any other troubled democracy -- had held a similar event, our lawmakers, most of whom have not even passed the GCE Advanced Level could have at least got an opportunity to learn what the Magna Carta is and how it contributed to the development of notions such as the rule of law, human rights and freedom with responsibility.
Our politicos could have learnt that the Magna Carta -- a document written in Latin -- reduced the powers of King John the tyrant. The wise among them could have drawn a parallel between the determination of the 13th century Barons in England and the public mood for change in Sri Lanka ahead of the January 8 presidential election and even now. True, the Charter only empowered the Barons, who were tyrants themselves within the fiefs they controlled. The charter did not improve the lot of the commoner. But it, gradually, set the stage for the commoners to fight for their rights -- and the spirit of the charter was visible in the universal adult franchise, the rule of law and many democratic implosions, including the French Revolution. Across the Atlantic, the spirit of the Magna Carta was found in the slogan “No representation, no taxation” during the American independence war.
Internationally, the spirit of the Magna Carta was found in the universal declaration of human rights. When the UDHR was adopted in 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt, human rights activist and widow of the late US President Franklin Roosevelt, described it as the international Magna Carta of all people everywhere.
It’s because of the Magna Carta that, in the late 1980s, Eastern Europe rose against dictators who were pseudo-communists. When the people of the Arab world braved the tyrants’ bullets during the Arab Spring in 2011, it was the spirit of the Magna Carta that drove them to do so.
Yet even in developed democracies, politics produces rulers who know little and care less about the Magna Carta. In 2003, the then US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair did not show respect for the tens of millions of people who protested against the Iraq war. Bush, who also faced a Cameron-like situation when he told a journalist that he thought the Taliban was a rock band, in fact reversed the march of the Magna Carta and introduced legislation that eroded liberty. The spirit of the Magna Carta was mummified in Egypt, where anti-democratic forces ousted a democratically elected president, held questionable elections and elected a military strongman as president.
In Sri Lanka, the oldest democracy in Asia, President Mahinda Rajapaksa got the 18th Amendment passed with a two-thirds majority, murdering the spirit of the Magna Carta, bringing about a constitutional dictatorship and reviving the old notion of the Divine Right to rule, which the Magna Carta had challenged and got rid of.
When President Maithripala Sirisena came forward as the common opposition candidate for the January 8 election, his slogans and manifesto were seen as a Magna Carta for Sri Lanka, for he pledged to abolish or reduce the powers vested in the executive presidency, eliminate corruption, bring about transparency in government, strengthen parliament and empower the people through progressive legislation, including a Right to Information Bill.
Although President Sirisena and the United National Party Government claim they have honoured most of the pledges during the 100-day programme, their promises were largely under-fulfilled. The classic example is the final shape of the 19th Amendment. This was not what the people wanted. The Eldorado that the people hoped for when they voted for Sirisena at the January 8 election now appears to be an illusion.
Notwithstanding the somewhat better situation we now enjoy in terms of freedom and liberty, the fact remains that there is a little bit of King John in every politician in power. Sirisena is no exception, though, to his credit, he has pruned his presidential term and pledged that he would not contest for a second term.