Is it time for a modern Magna Carta?

This weekend sees the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta and Lincoln is going to town on marking the event, and rightly so. Being home to one of the four surviving copies of the document sealed at Runnymede by King John is a huge honour for our city.

The document has now become a representation of the start of our modern democracy and empowerment of citizens. Looking back at that document, is it time for a modern Magna Carta?

We must not get distracted from the significance of the anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta. Whether we watch the flotilla of kayaks and boats on the Brayford, take part in the Baron’s trail or see Diversity at the Castle, we need to take time out and remember why this document still has significance for us today.

The Magna Carta was sealed by King John essentially as a peace treaty after a long dispute with the church and the barons. It was not successful in preserving the peace for long, as King John disliked the terms once they were imposed and asked for the document to be annulled by the Pope.

This led to an escalation in hostilities and it only ended in John’s death the following year. A second version of Magna Carta was signed by Henry III in 1225.

One of the most well-known clauses from Magna Carta is the right to a trial by jury which is covered in Clauses 39 and 40 of the document which says:

“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.

“To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice. No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled nor will we proceed with force against him except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.”

This part of the Magna Carta is still in law today, although much of the document has been superseded by other legislation such as the Human Rights Act of 1998.

Looking wider than the UK, the Magna Carta has influenced the American Bill of Rights written in 1791. More recently, the principles of Magna Carta can be seen in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights which were penned after the atrocities of the Second World War.

Should we now be looking at revisiting the Magna Carta and have a version for the 21st Century? Possibly “yes” is the answer. With a series of more authoritarian governments over recent years, our rights as citizens have been tested.

Under New Labour there were the anti-terror laws that were seen as being misused and abused by authorities for some trivial things, the idea of ID cards for all citizens, the once planned DNA database, the freedom to protest was restricted and we remember when Walter Wolfgang, an 82 year old Labour member was thrown out of their party conference for heckling.

Now, with the new Conservative government there are already plans for the return of the ‘Snoopers’ Charter’, allowing the security services access to everyone’s online communications even if there is no suspicion of wrong doing.

There is also the likely threat of a reduction in employment rights and the possible scrapping of the Human Rights Act in the next five years. This is coupled with the threat of privatisation of the NHS, a roll back in environmental projects and little give in constitutional reform.

The key factor for a 21st Century Magna Carta should be that the rights of citizens today would be protected and could only be changed with our approval by referendum.

As Kenneth Clarke said in a speech celebrating Magna Carta in October 2011: “All states, even the most democratic, have a natural tendency to accumulate more power than they need, and to impose more restrictions than are strictly and sensibly necessary.” Let’s get power back in the hands of the people.