Kennedy QC v Starkey in almighty Magna Carta bust up on this morning’s BBC radio

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By Judge John Hack on

Lawyer and historian go hammer and tongs, while Twittersphere lambasts Law Society for dropping definite article clanger regarding the 800-year-old document


A cat fight broke out this morning between two powerful camps in British society — luvvie lawyers v luvvie historians — as they scrapped over the crucial issue of the legacy of Magna Carta.

In the red corner was Helena Kennedy QC of London’s Doughty Street Chambers, or more formally, Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws; in the blue corner was television’s David Starkey, Britain’s self-anointed greatest historian.

The crux of the high-octane row on Radio 4’s Today Programme was whether lawyers make too much of a meal over the lasting value of that 13th century document. In short, Starkey reckons they do with knobs on; Kennedy is pretty firm that they don’t.

Through the miracle of modern technology, Legal Cheek readers can decide for themselves thanks to the audio extracts of the tussle published here. Highlights include Kennedy allowing herself to be described — tongue partially in cheek — as a “great lawyer”, and Starkey berating her with the term “lawyer myths”.

‘Are you a lawyer? Is accuracy being pedantic?’

‘Juries did not exist in 1215 — It’s a lawyer myth’

The telly historian reckons that the legal profession has over-promoted the 1215 document, suggesting that the real anniversary celebrations should come in 10 years’ time. For Starkey it is the 1225 iteration of Magna Carta that carries more lasting oomph.

‘Helena, let’s correct fact, I am the historian … and I’m a great historian’

The Kennedy-Starkey dust-up falls against another row over the 800-year-old piece of paper. Twitter was ablaze late last week and earlier this over suggestions that the Law Society had dropped a grammatical clanger.

The body representing solicitors in England and Wales was hauled over the coals for the setting of its annual human rights essay question, which went like this:

“The roots of many of our basic rights go back to the Magna Carta whose 800th anniversary is being celebrated in 2015. Given this important legacy, to what extent would proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights impact on the protection of human rights in the UK and around the world?”

Pedants have crawled from every inch of social media woodwork to cry foul over the use of the definite article immediately preceding Magna Carta.

As all those that managed to stay awake during Latin lessons will recall, that language is a bit shaky on definite and indefinite articles. So technically — and let’s face it, the law ain’t nothing it ain’t about technicalities — references to the great document should simply be “Magna Carta”.

And before the Legal Cheek comments section lights up like a Metropolitan Police van headed back to the station at teatime, we put our hands up. In common with hundreds of Fleet Street and specialist hacks up and down the country, we’ve shoved a definite article in front of Magna Carta on several occasions.

For the record, Ian McDonald, a fourth-year LLB student at Birkbeck College, University of London, bagged the Law Society essay prize.

And finally, to close down this Magna Carta update, the Twittersphere’s ubiquitous legal commentator and blogger David Allen Green wheeled out his Jack of Kent alter-ego to bemoan the fact that every time he attempts to have a serious social media discussion about the document, jokers raise Tony Hancock’s famous question: “Did she die in vain?”


For those too young to have heard of Hancock or have any idea of his “Half Hour”, then check out this link to the great comedian’s version of “Twelve Angry Men”.

Enough Magna Carta, now, cries the editor. She’s dead to us.

Listen to the heated debate in full (it’s at 2:20) here.