800 years ago, following a rebellion against extortionate taxes imposed by their sovereign, a group of noblemen and bishops met King John on the island of Runnymede in the River Thames and forced him to sign Magna Carta.
This week the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury met with the current sovereign to commemorate this important moment in the establishment of the rule of law in England. From the smiles on their faces, I think we can take it that the Queen and her grandson, the future King William, were willing participants and not brought there under duress like their medieval ancestor. But the message of their meeting was serious nevertheless.
Magna Carta started a process of limiting the power of the sovereign (and his government) and expanding the rights of ordinary men and women. We should be proud that these rights were first recognised in England – and we are especially fortunate to have one of the original copies of Magna Carta on display in a magnificent vault in Lincoln Castle.
Our country’s role in elevating the rights and freedoms of each individual and resisting the oppression of free men and women by tyrants and dictators is a long and glorious one. It starts with Magna Carta and continues with our defeat of Napoleon, Hitler and Soviet communism.
So it is very sad that human rights have become an elastic concept, exploited by ingenious lawyers and foreign judges, to stop the deportation of foreign terrorists and criminals. It is because I believe in the rights of every human being, and want to restore them to a position of public respect, that I support David Cameron’s determination to draw up a British Bill or Rights to replace the Human Rights Act passed by the Blair government. No doubt British judges will also make some decisions that many of us find baffling or bizarre. But if they sit on our Supreme Court and are interpreting a Bill of Rights rooted in Magna Carta and moulded by our Parliament, I believe we can restore the faith of the British people in the fundamental rights that all human beings share.