Magna Carta: "Civil Liberties"

The Revd Robin Sims-Williams

When I read To Kill a Mocking Bird as part of the curriculum growing up in Canada, Atticus’ advice to his daughter Scout that, ‘you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb in his skin and walk around in it’ inspired me, it was one of those quotes I wrote on the back of my exercise book and even my cabbage patch doll was named Atticus, to free my first born from being so named. In the 1980s and 90s the story of To Kill a Mocking Bird was a reminder of how far we had come, but also how far we still had to go.

Magna Carta was clearly written and agreed in favour of the barons and land-owners, it also gave certain rights to some serfs. ‘Free men’ in particular, the highest rank of serfs, were not to be seized or imprisoned… As implied by the title ‘free men’, they already had certain rights, but much of great charter increased the protection they were granted. Even unfree peasantry (‘the villeins’) who were obliged to serve their lord’s land without pay, were granted extra protection, limiting the fines that could be imposed on them - protecting their livelihood. Similarly, even ‘the villeins’ were protect from royal officials seizing their goods without payment.

The Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Stephen Langton, who was central to negotiations at Runnymede. For Langton, People were not to be enslaved by their rulers - that was the Biblical imperative that came from the story of the Israelites being freed from Egypt. In all this, fundamental to Magna Carta is the place of law - it had provision for a law court in every shire - so the law - Magna Carta herself and the courts which apply her laws, sits as she does here, above crown and people.

In the 800 years since Magna Carta was first sealed it has been the instigator of ever increasing freedom. Since the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 there has been the creation of a minimum wage, freedom of speech which is so ell established it is sometimes taken for granted, and is a complete shock when challenged by individuals, and the disabled have equal rights, in law at least, But... The Slave trade may be illegal in the UK, but Slavery continues in the UK with several thousand people reported strapped in slavery. In 2013 over 1700 people identified as potential victims of trafficking in the UK, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. In the building industry, at car washes, in the home down the road, in the fields from where the salad and vegetables on our dinner tables comes, in food packaging, there are people working, perhaps foreign migrants, who are caught up in some exploitative system.

But even if it’s not here in this country, we are still complicit. The Bishop of Derby recently said, ‘slavery is probably as close to you as the mobile phone in your pocket’, in that many of the electronic devices we use are come from systems where slave labour is endemic. The clothing industry, in an attempt to keep up with the demand for cheaper and cheaper clothes, has often failed to keep close enough scrutiny of their own supply chains. The Modern Slavery Bill, currently before parliament, includes a new requirement for businesses to report on slavery and forced labour in their supply chains.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN in 1948, in the wake of the second world war. The European Convention was agreed in 1953. It builds on the foundation started by Magna Carta, and yet to some it is seen as a set of arcane rules designed to protect criminals from the law, or to make it difficult for people to do good things by introducing levels of bureaucracy. Critics point to examples like the police and armed forces having to make detailed plans of how if their decision go wrong they might infringe another person’s ‘right to life’ (Article 8) to avoid being sued. A process which becomes farcical in combat situations.

Free speech, too, is an example of challenge and controversy in our understanding of rights. Even Amnesty international states that Free speech must come with responsibilities and can be legitimately restricted. The Amnesty website states: ‘Governments have an obligation to prohibit hate speech and incitement. And restrictions can also be justified if they protect specific public interest or the rights and reputations of others.’ It goes on to say that, ‘People imposing the restrictions (whether they are governments, employers or anyone else) must be able to demonstrate the need for them, and they must be proportionate.’

But governments have too often overstepped their responsibility in terms of restricting freedom of speech. As President Obama pointed out yesterday, speaking from Selma, Alabama on the 50th anniversary of the suppression of civil rights protestors in that place. The people protesting that day, and the many who joined the civil rights movement after seeing images of what happened that day, didn’t just open up the doors to black americans, they opened up the doors of opportunity for every american: for women, latinos, asian americans, gays, those with disabilities.

Back in this country, the Equality Act 2010 makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against you because of a disability. Tesco’s children’s range of clothing is currently modelled by 9 year old Holly, who has cerebral palsy and cannot walk or talk. BUT only half of working age disabled people are in employment (research published by SCOPE in April last year), and 1 in 5 of the UK population has a disability. It is an ongoing frustration to us here that the cost of installing disabled access at the front of the building as with so many places in London, is so prohibitive.


An offence against any one person is an offence against us all. We have come so far, but we have so very far still to go.