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New Magna Carta?

20 June 2014

THE Trojan horse has not been much in the news since the Greeks laid siege to Troy. But it is grabbing headlines now, as Islamic extremists allegedly lay siege to academy schools in Birmingham.

In the same way as the Greeks smuggled soldiers into Troy inside a wooden horse, are fundamentalist Muslims smuggling doctrinaire life-rules into schools? Cue mass panic and talk of a new Magna Carta.

In one sense, Magna Carta is an unlikely benchmark in the history of fair play. The barons who, in 1215, forced King John to sign on the dotted line at Runnymede were mainly serving their own interests.

The comic history 1066 and All That satirised some of these intentions. Clause 39 was expressed as: "The barons will not be tried except by a special jury of other barons who will understand." It also mocked other provisions in the charter: "Everyone should be free (except the Common People)"; "Everything should be of the same weight and measure throughout the Realm (except the Common People)"; and "No person should be fined to his utter ruin (except the King's Person)."

The famous charter was limited in range. It was particularly interested in fish-weirs (clause 33); and its overall benefits were available only to "free men", which excluded the common people (villeins), who made up half the population. Yet, as the historian David Starkey says, eight centuries later this "tool for self-promotion remains the world's most powerful engine of democracy". How is this so?

The barons drew a line in the sand; and what mattered was not so much where the line was drawn, but the fact that a line could be drawn at all. Conceived here was the revolutionary idea that it was not just the king who had rights; the people had a voice, too. And, down the centuries, the line has had to be redrawn, as individuals and causes have taken a stand against authority.

This ancient charter remains at the heart of an unconscious sense of Britishness, only now it is not the power of the monarch under scrutiny, but the power of religion - Runnymede meets Birmingham.

The charter stands as a line in the sand against extremism, against people being forced into belief and behaviour, and for fair play. Crucially, it established that the kingdom was more than the king - and, by inference, above any other authority, even that ascribed to God. It gave England the concept of the community of the realm; and what makes for community is at the heart of the Birmingham debates.

Growing responsible community is slow and messy. Trial by jury (1215); the rights of Parliament (1640s); the abolition of slavery (1833); universal suffrage (1928); the minimum wage (1998); and now, doctrinaire religion in education (2014)?

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