800 years of Magna Carta and the Myth of English exceptionalism

Source http://frederick-the-great.tumblr.com/post/109928013853/800-years-of-magna-carta-and-the-myth-of-english

Crying Tears of Liberty

Le sacré, voilà l’ennemi

800 years of Magna Carta and the Myth of English exceptionalism



1- Magna Carta is not the first sign of Constitutionalism (by the way, Britain does not have a written constitution), it is not the beginning of any form of representative government and it does not relate in any way – ANY way – to modern conceptions of liberty.

2- In fact, the Magna Carta was a medieval document which intended the firm establishment of a medieval hierarchical society – which was natural of middle ages. The people Magna Carta grants certain “freedoms” is mostly the Barons, that is, the feudal order of nobility. Therefore, in the Magna Carta the freedom of some (The Barons) is much more important and extense than the freedom of the others (The peasantry and serfs, for instance). Among other things, the Magna Carta concerned itself with protection of church rights, limitations on taxation and other feudal payments owed to the Crown. So the Magna Carta’s point was mainly to strenghten the role and garantee the power of two very specific orders – the barons and the church.

3- The Magna Carta limits the power of the King in favour of the barons. This was not news in Medieval Society and Political Thought. One only has to read Medieval philosophy to know that Kings were not supposed to rule alone. In fact, and for instance, parliament and other forms of advisory government were called to give advice several times during the Middle Ages not just in Britain, but in France, Castille, Portugal etc.  (for instance, from 1230 the Cortes of Castille and Leon were merged and the lords had quite some power given that they commanded the army). It is also worth noting that movements towards streghtening the nobility were not exactly news in Europe. Other realms have documents that in intent are very similar to the Magna Carta.

4- What we call the advent of Modernity (late 16-18th century) is in fact marked by the power of the King. From the 16th century onwards it begins in Europe a process of growing centralization of state based around the figure of the king and supported by court functionaries and bureaucrats. Traditional Nobility slowly begins to lose its importance in favour of educated fuctionaries of state. Although war would always be the function of nobles, government is slowly occupied by what is called in some countries the “Nobles of the robe” – that is, nobles whose main function was to take part in the government, helping and advising the King. This was also when Kings established themselves in capital cities and stopped traveling around the country. However, this process of centralization is made against the kind of Order that the Magna Carta imposed, mainly because the Magna Carta conferred great power to a certain order – the Barons – while modernity brings the State whose head is a Monarch – a Princeps – into play. State-Prince lead the Realm and they are above factions. The King is no longer a Primus inter pares – the first among equals. He is above them, he is the state. This movement is extremely important because the notion of state connected to a central power, a central entity that is above orders finds its roots here. So we could say, in this sense, that the Magna Carta is not a Modern document. Not Modern by our 21th century standards, and not even Modern by 16 or 17 or 18th century standards. In fact, this process of centralization is made against documents like the MC.

5- What happens in England and Scotland is slightly different because of Parliament. In the 17th century a struggle ensues between King and Parliament which is motivated by political and religious tendencies. It is in the 17th century that the lawyers and “political theorists” recover the Magna Carta and give it a new meaning: a Charter against the King’s “absolute” power. This is a very loose interpretation of the original Magna Carta and we can definitely argue that the document was manipulated by 17th century parliamentarians in order to suit their struggle against the King. It is also worth noting that the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution are not in any conceivable way connected to democratic notions, or Sovereignty of State. In my view, we can talk about a very primitive separation of powers. Separation NOT balance of powers (which by the way, was what Montesquieu wanted).

6- In the 18th and 19th century with the rise of Whig historians and Whig ideology the Magna Carta gained yet another role. It became a symbol for British exceptionalism. The idea that the British system of Goverment had no need of violent revolutions because the system garanteed itself, garanteed the liberty of its subjects and protection from abuses of power. (This is a very small explanation, I could write thousand words on the whigs but I fear no one will read this).

7- Why is all this important? Why should we take this opportunity, the 800 years of the Magna Carta to say these things? Because British Exceptionalism is a lie. It is based on the idea that is still in vigour nowadays amongst many political scientists that there are two traditions of Modern Liberty: The British one with its “gradual process of maturing” and the Continental with its violent revolutions and its guillotine. The problem is that by comparing both, the British sounds a little better because it is not “so violent”. But the fact is that the only exceptionalism of Britain is the same as France, Spain, Prussia etc. Every political formation, every region is exceptional in its own way. Thus the idea that the British system is better than the others is a lie because the freedoms it garanteed were very limited until mid 19th century (post French revolution, and mid Industrial revolution) and because it does not take in account that with or without Parliament the British political system was as corrupt as any other Ancien Regime system in Europe. And mostly because it is precisely this thought that originates a number of anachronistic analysis of the Magna Carta, giving it meanings it never intended to have. From there is born the idea that the British system of government was “meant to be” since the 12th century which is a historical fallacy. Nothing is really meant to be in History. From there also, originates the idea of superiority: we are better because we had sparks of democracy 800 years before everyone else and 600 years before Rousseau and that damn Revolution the French did.

Ultimately, this British exceptionalism although no longer believed by serious historians, is very deeply entrenched in certain parts of British’s elites. Of course that it is not only fed by the Magna Carta or the Glorious Revolution or Edmund Burke. It is fed by a lot of other factors such as the fact that Britain was the greatest, largest empire in History. But one wonders whether it is not time to fight these myths in a time in which what one needs to underline is that Britain is part of a wider context, that there were similiar documents to the Magna Carta, similar tensions between “barons” (or feudal order) and the King in other realms of Europe, that the religions tensions in 17th century England and Scotland also have a wider European context, that as John Donne said, No man is a island entire of itself. And may I say, no island is really an island alone by itself, with no context, with no Structure to explain it.


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