Did Magna Carta Die in Vain?

Did Magna Carta Die in Vain?

October 04, 2012
Originally published in The American Spectator

It's rare that an interview by David Letterman gives you deep insight into a troubling problem, but his interview with British Prime Minister David Cameron last week certainly did. Letterman did part of his usual shtick, asking the Prime Minister a series of quiz questions about British history. He failed to answer two of them correctly. One was, "Who wrote Rule Britannia?" -- which is not generally known. More troublingly, he also missed, "What is the literal translation of Magna Carta?" The fact that the Prime Minister of Great Britain did not know that the answer was "The Great Charter" is deeply worrying -- and should serve as a warning to America.

Britons have always taken some amusement in the fact that such an important part of their nation's history has a Latin name, which very few people have ever been taught. British political commenter Mark Wallace found a good illustration of that, in this clip in which comedian Tony Hancock asks, "Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?" David Cameron went to an extremely good school -- Eton College -- where Latin is taught as a matter of course, and much of social media buzz lamented the state of Latin teaching at Eton. But for once, Cameron's privileged upbringing was not the point. The problem with his answer isn't the state of Latin instruction at elite British academies. It is that not knowing that Magna Carta is the Great Charter displays a fundamental lack of constitutional understanding.

Magna Carta is one of the foundational documents of Anglo-American constitutionalism. It formed the basis of constitutional jurisprudence in the 16th century. In the 17th, it served as the foundation for the drafting of first, the Petition of Right, then the Declaration of Right, and eventually the British Bill of Rights. In the 19th century, a mass political movement, the Chartists, arose to demand a new Charter of fundamental rights in a democracy. All of the Chartists' "6 points" bar one -- annual Parliaments -- have since been enacted into law.

So David Cameron didn't just flunk Latin, he flunked History as well. More troublingly, he also flunked Political Philosophy, the subject he supposedly studied at Oxford. Even if he hadn't, one might suppose a decent working knowledge of Britain's legal and governing tradition would be a prerequisite for a Conservative Prime Minister trying to undo the damage of over a decade of constitutional vandalism wrought by the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

That is because at heart, Magna Carta is about one thing -- restricting government. That goal may be unfashionable among the chattering classes these days, but the document articulating it has been resilient for a reason. The fact that putting bounds on government and constraining what it is allowed to do is essential to progress and prosperity was recognized as far back as 1215. For instance, when King John declared, "No scutage nor aid shall be imposed on our Kingdom unless by common council," he recognized that the taxes he had arbitrarily imposed were damaging to England. It is the source of the idea that taxation must be levied only by consent of the governed, and thereby laid the foundation for the need for separation of powers.

Those of us who carry pocket copies of the U.S. Constitution may shake our heads at such ignorance, but we should not be smug about it. All around us we see evidence that the central lesson of Magna Carta is being ignored. Legislators -- federal, state and local -- continually seek to expand not only their own statutory powers, but also that of executives. Executives, especially at the federal level, use broad discretionary powers to regulate the minute affairs of business, commerce, and property ownership. Perhaps worst of all, judges often turn a blind eye to the central principle behind both Magna Carta and the American Founding -- that government must be constrained.

That the United Kingdom has nationally forgotten this lesson, as evidenced by its nominally Conservative Prime Minister, should be a wake-up call to Americans. We cherish our Constitution, but if we allow its principles to be undermined by politically expedient executive actions, legislation, and court rulings, it might as well have been written in Latin.