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The evolution of English democracy


Magna Carta. PHOTO:Wikipedia

One of the most famous documents in the world, Magna Carta Libertatum (Great Charter of the Liberties), is a charter agreed to by King John of England at Runnymede, on 15 June 1215 under threat of civil war, and reissued with alterations in 1216, 1217, and 1225. The Magna Carter declared the sovereign to be subject to the rule of law, and documented the liberties held by “free men,” thus providing the foundation for individual rights in English jurisprudence.

First drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury to make peace between an unpopular King and a group of rebel barons, the Magna Carta promised the protection of church rights, protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown, to be implemented through a council of 25 barons. Neither side stood behind their commitments, leading to the First Barons’ War. After John’s death in 1216, and the end of the war, his son – Henry III, reissued the document in 1217 as part of the peace treaty agreed at Lambeth. Henry III’s son, Edward I, repeated the exercise in 1297, confirming it as part of England’s statute law.

Most of the 63 clauses granted by King John dealt with specific grievances of the nobles relating to his rule. They felt that he intruded too much in their business. However, buried within them were a number of fundamental values that both challenged the autocracy of the king and proved highly adaptable in future centuries. Most famously, the 39th clause gave all ‘free men’ the right to justice and a fair trial. Some of Magna Carta’s core principles are echoed in the United States Bill of Rights (1791) and in many other constitutional documents around the world, as well as in the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950).


The charter became part of English political life and was typically renewed by each monarch in turn, although as time went by and the fledgling English Parliament passed new laws, it lost some of its practical significance. At the 17th century, jurists such as Sir Edward Coke used the Magna Carta extensively to argue against the divine right of kings. Both James I and his son Charles I attempted to suppress the discussion of the Magna Carta, but that was halted by the English Civil War of the 1640s and the execution of Charles.

The Magna Carta also influenced the Thirteen Colonies in America, and the formation of the American Constitution.
As a peace treaty, the Magna Carta was a failure, but it provided a new framework for the relationship between the King and his subjects. It became a potent, international rallying cry against the arbitrary use of power.

How does this matter to Nigeria?
Contrary to what many Nigerians believe, the democratic evolution of the UK was a long drawn out process, with groups fighting for their interests, and succeeding. It was not a matter of groups fighting for the “common man”. The evolution which essentially started off with the landed nobles fighting King John for power and forcing him to sign the Magna Carta, chipped away slowly at the absolute power of the monarch, over centuries. After the English Civil War, other groups fought – and obtained the right to have their interests represented in parliament.

It was all about interests, and everyone struggled to have their interests represented. After the Civil War, the next group to fight for their interests to be represented were the merchants (the Glorious Revolution). The next major event was the Industrial Revolution, and industrialists also fought for their interests to be represented. Following the Industrial Revolution, workers (in the new factory towns such as Manchester) were badly treated – and not represented. They too had to fight for their interests. That was how the “Labour Party” came about. The workers were followed by women groups, the “suffragettes”. The current fight for real rights and parity is by Immigrants.

What is the point of all this?
Nigeria, via the ongoing spat between various power blocs, will ultimately see a situation where the absolute rights of the Executive, and then the government, are chipped away in favour of a more equal country. It is, from a purely historical angle, a good thing. What we as a people need to learn though, is that politics is a game of interest, and as the electorate it is our duty to learn how to either align our interests with those of one set of political gladiators, or force their interests to align with ours. A solid example in the ongoing nonsense is this – internal security in Nigeria has failed. The ongoing legislative spat has made the National Assembly to begin to consider community policing, something that would not have happened had the federal police not been used to try to fight them. Interests have aligned, progress can be made. Whether it would take centuries as it did in England, or whether it would take a shorter time, as in America, all depends on us.

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