England's greatest export

Sir Robert Worcester

It is a wonder to me that I am writing an 800-year history for a journal that serves a very elite community of citizens of India, the world's largest democracy and one of the oldest.

Growing up in America, I had a pretty thorough schooling in English history, English literature and, not least, English cinema (that was before television), which included 1215 and Magna Carta.

From an early age, it was 'Good' King Richard the Lionheart, 'Bad' King John 'Lackland' (and Robin Hood and his merry men, Little John, Friar Tuck, Will Scarlet and all), Henry VIII and Elizabeth the Virgin Queen, Shakespeare and Georgian elegance in costume, architecture and music. I grew up with the belief that the sun never sets on the British empire. I collected stamps from all over the British empire, including, of course, India.

All Americans knew then that George Washington, John and Sam Adams, John Jay, James Otis, Benjamin Franklin and nearly all the Founding Fathers were Englishmen. Alexander Hamilton was a Scot.

I first saw Magna Carta at the British Exhibition at the New York World's Fair, where the Lincoln copy was displayed. I was seven years old.

My first visit to Britain was in 1957, when I was a serving officer in the US Army Corps of Engineers, returning to America to be discharged after serving in Korea. On my first day in London, I went to the British Museum to see two things, Magna Carta and the Rosetta Stone. To me, they represented the two icons of civilised society: the rule of law and communication outside the village.

When I arrived in Britain with my family in 1969, I found that I had to continue to pay income tax in the US, but also, to my surprise, that I had lost the right to vote in the US elections. Now, every American school boy and girl knows that the battle cry of the American colonists in the Revolutionary War was “no taxation without representation”. We knew about the Boston Tea Party, when the rebels dressed as Indians and raided the ships carrying tea which was taxed, and dumped the tea chests into Boston harbour.

I joined together a tiny group of Americans living in London, who formed a bipartisan group that we called Tax Equity for Americans Abroad (TEAA), for lobbying congress to either give us the vote or allow us to be exempt from American tax.

We did get a bill in congress, but it got bottled up in an obscure subcommittee of the house administration committee. To break the deadlock, we slowly worked our way up to an appointment with the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the third most powerful person in the American government. We had five minutes. We said, “Mr Speaker, we are representing overseas Americans. We still have to pay American taxes, and we have lost our right to vote!”

“You've lost the right to vote? That's outrageous,” he said, and promised to do something about it. I said, “Well, Mr Speaker, if you don't, we are going to come and dump tea in your harbour.” His name was Tip O'Neill, congressman from Boston. President Ford signed it into law on the January 6, 1977, three weeks before leaving office.

The principle 'no taxation without representation' was enshrined in Magna Carta. The values enshrined in Magna Carta and its legacy are largely the reason for the existence of the special relationship that bonds my two countries, Britain and America, which have fought two World Wars and many smaller conflicts shoulder-to-shoulder in defence of liberty. In 2011, in a speech to the British parliament, President Barack Obama said, “Our relationship is special because of the values and beliefs that have united our people throughout the ages. Centuries ago, when kings, emperors and warlords reigned over much of the world, it was the English who first spelled out the rights and liberties of man in Magna Carta.”

49-treasurednew Treasured text: Magna Carta manuscripts on display at 'Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy' exhibition at the British Library in London | Getty Images

Citizens of free countries working under the rule of law believe in freedom. When I mention Magna Carta to people who believe in freedom anywhere in the world, eyes light up, especially lawyers'.

Many myths surround Magna Carta. Most people say it was signed. They are wrong. Many say that it was only a fight between the barons and the king. It certainly was, but not only that. It was the beginning of the spread of modern democracy.

Magna Carta was the overturning, for the first time, of the 'divine right' doctrine and the beginning of representative democracy. As a former lord chief justice of the United Kingdom recently said, the Article 12 “Nullum scutagium vel auxilium ponatur in regno nostro, nisi per commune consilium regninostri”. It roughly translates as “No taxation without representation”.

Magna Carta was the foundation of human rights and civil liberties, as protected in the American constitution. Magna Carta enshrined the rule of law. It limited the power of authoritarian rule. It paved the way for trial by jury, modified through the ages as the franchise was extended. Magna Carta proclaimed certain religious liberties. It said, “The English church shall be free.”

Many people think Magna Carta does not have anything about women's rights. It does—Article 7. An awful lot of common people were being cheated by cloth-makers, publicans and others. Magna Carta talked of introducing standard weights and measures. It was a revolution. The head man of Shepherd Neame in Kent, Britain's oldest brewery, told me that the pint was invented in 1215, with standard weights and measures. Magna Carta said the common people had the right to come and go, in England and abroad, except in time of war.

Magna Carta is England's greatest export. The principles contained in Magna Carta now affect the lives of nearly two billion people in more than 100 countries. It is an exceptional document on which all democratic societies have been constructed. It has influenced constitutional thinking worldwide—in many Commonwealth countries and in France, Germany, Japan, Asia, Latin America and Africa. Over the past 800 years, denials of Magna Carta's basic principles have led to a loss of liberties and even to genocide taking place yesterday, this morning, today and tomorrow.
Sir Robert Worcester is chairman, Magna Carta 800th Anniversary Commemoration Committee.

This browser settings will not support to add bookmarks programmatically. Please press Ctrl+D or change settings to bookmark this page.
The Week

Get the full story

You can subscribe the week e- magazine to read the entire article. Available package details are listed.

Related Reading

    Show more