2015 stands a great chance of being the year that discussions about democracy become mainstream in the UK. There are two significant anniversaries to be marked: 750 years since the first Parliament, and 800 years since the Magna Carta. It is also the year of a long-awaited General Election in which party leaders will be seeking to engage with voters across a wider range of media than ever before.
The Magna Carta, 1215
‘Magna Carta’ means ‘Great Charter’, and it was sealed by King John on 15th June 1215. It is commonly seen as the document that established the principle of the rule of law, and agreement that those who rule the land are also subject to the laws of the land.
Not all of its 63 clauses remain relevant, but the spirit of those limiting the power of the monarch and protecting the rights of the individual live on today. For example, clauses 12 and 14 prevent the king from levying taxes without the prior agreement of feudal barons; today, politicians need the agreement of voters (through forming an elected government) in order to impose their preferred system of taxation. Clause 39 establishes the right of the individual to a fair trial, and recommends trial by jury, which became the convention and was fully enshrined in law in 1670.
The Parliament of 1265
Henry III inherited the throne from his father, but he also inherited the restrictions upon the king placed by the Magna Carta, and so faced a constant power struggle with the land-owning barons of feudal England. Henry’s sister Eleanor married one of these barons, Simon de Montfort, who started off as one of Henry III’s most loyal soldiers but then became his most dangerous opponent.
In 1264 de Montfort defeated Henry in battle, and both King Henry III and his son Edward were captured. On 20th January 1265, de Montfort called a meeting of the barons, which was hosted at the Palace of Westminster. This is now regarded as the first meeting of Parliament.
The attempt was short-lived: Edward escaped in May 1265, and on 4th August he killed de Montfort in battle. By 1267, Edward’s father King Henry III was back on the throne. Furthermore, the de Montfort Parliament was a meeting comprised solely of landowners, and its scope was narrow. But the principle of a group of people collectively deciding on policy without the input of the governing monarch was established.
Discussions on democracy in 2015
Protecting the rights of the individual in law and representing the people in Parliament are two fundamental aspects of being a UK citizen in 2015. But in the run-up to the General Election, there are signs of voter disillusionment and a significant proportion of people feeling unrepresented by the main political parties.
I’d like to see everyone take this as an opportunity to talk about what democracy means to them, and what they think the fairest means of government would be. In an ideal world, starting from scratch, how would you go about it?