A high-powered bench acquitted a group of tax-dodging barons of treason, as the tills went into overdrive in the Palace of Westminster gift shop
Americans — and to a lesser extent, those from the old Commonwealth — have a real appetite for a taste of Ye Olde Englande.
Even lawyers can get caught in that misty romanticism — and there ain’t much that is more olde and Englande on the legal front than an 800-year-old sheepskin parchment known as Magna Carta.
The reality about Magna Carta is that it was effectively a tax avoidance scheme launched by a group of 13th-century wealthy landowners.
Far from seeing themselves as lighting a torch for liberty that would blaze brightly through the centuries, the barons were mostly concerned with not being forced to pay King John rent.
Sure, buried deep among the clauses of Magna Carta was what has become a clarion call for those fighting the cause of the individual in the face of the oppressive state. “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice …”, etc. But at the time, those sentiments were far from top of the barons’ agenda.
But just as the saccharine cinema tripe from Richard Curtis — “Notting Hill”, “Love Actually” — is cod-Englishness made with Americans in mind, Magna Carta has become part of theme park Britain.
And no better example was provided than last Friday’s bonanza at Parliament.
‘Treason? The trial of the Magna Carta Barons’ was co-produced by the 800th anniversary commemoration committee and the UK Supreme Court, and was billed as a mock trial that would see the barons in the dock for treason.
The venue — Westminster Hall, with parts originally built in 1099 is old in anyone’s book — was spectacular; the great and the good turned out in their droves; and the judging panel (pictured below) was of top quality: Lord Neuberger, President of the UK Supreme Court, Justice Stephen Breyer, a Clinton-appointed judge on the US Supreme Court, and Dame Sian Elias, the Chief Justice of the New Zealand Supreme Court.
Barrister-turned-broadcaster Clive Anderson gave a lively and off-the-cuff performance as King John. While King’s College London history professor David Carpenter put up an equally feisty performance as baron-in-chief Robert FitzWalter. And unleashing their inner amateur thespians were Blackstone Chambers’ James Eadie QC — who acted for the government in the trial of Abu Hamza and in the dispute over the burial of King Richard III — for the prosecution, and Landmark Chambers’ Nathalie Lieven QC went into bat for the barons.
There were also supporting roles for former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, and crossbencher Lord Lisvane. One of the most entertaining performances came from Derek Allen, one of the Supreme Court’s real-life ushers, who read the charges and asked the defendants to enter their pleas.
But what was the point? The judges rather predictably ruled that King John was a vicious, lascivious bastard of a despot and that the barons were not treasonous in forcing him to sign Magna Carta.
That was followed by a summary from BBC man Gavin Esler, who intoned on the importance of the document through the ages. Americans — and many others — nodded in sober agreement.
Fair enough. Renowned pollster Sir Robert Worcester — a Kansas City native who came to the UK some 45 years ago — is the chairman of the anniversary committee. The glossy programme for the mock trail opened with an image of American Bar Association President William Hubbard accompanied by a grim-faced Princess Royal at last June’s Magna Carta rededication gig at Runnymede.
It’s hardly a capital crime if the Americans fancy a bit of 13th century romanticism. But soppiness shouldn’t be confused with historical accuracy.
The much-maligned Human Rights Act has a lot more to do with protecting individual rights against overbearing state power than a few throwaway lines in an 800-year-old tax dodge.