Why the Magna Carta? The question of what is special about the Magna Carta goes to the heart of any discussion about the enduring significance of what happened at Runnymede in June 1215.
The Magna Carta was not unique in European history. In the Middle Ages it was quite common for monarchs to issue charters not very different from the Magna Carta. The best-known example is the Golden Bull of 1222, forced on King Andrew II of Hungary by disaffected nobles. Under its terms, nobles could legally disobey a king who was not acting according to the law.
But as the political scientist Francis Fukuyama has noted, the Golden Bull didn’t become the foundation for a political system in Hungary, as the Magna Carta did in England. From the fourteenth century onwards, democracy was developing in England while royal absolutism was taking hold in the rest of Europe. Fukuyama asks, ‘Why didn’t England end up like Hungary?’ He gives two answers.
The first lies in the fact that England had a relatively centralised and well-regarded government. The English preferred to reform their administration rather than revolutionise it. The other reason England developed as it did, according to Fukuyama, was because its society was mobile and open to non-elites. Why England is different has been speculated upon for centuries.
Montesquieu visiting England in 1729 wrote ‘I am here in a country which hardly resembles the rest of Europe.’ In his Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu noted that England was a commercial nation because they were a ‘free people’. When Napoleon said ‘England is a nation of shopkeepers’ he actually didn’t mean it as an insult. He recognised England’s wealth was a product of its trade, not its population or the extent of its territory.
In his book The Origins of English Individualism, Alan Macfarlane noted an intriguing difference between English land law in the Middle Ages and land law in other parts of Europe. In England, individuals owned the land, and they could buy and sell land as they wished—all property was purchasable—a premise contrary to law in nearly every other part of the world. In other countries, there was communal ownership of the land and significant restrictions on what could be done with the land. The consequence of this was, for example, that English agriculture became ‘individualistic’ while French agriculture remained ‘communal’. In England decisions about land were made by individuals, not the family or a set of families. The assumption that individuals were free to acquire and dispose of property runs through the whole of the Magna Carta.
The Magna Carta was a compact between the barons—an elite strata of a few dozen people—and King John. The barons’ interests were not necessarily aligned with the mass of people below them—the freemen and bonded peasants who ultimately bore the brunt of political and economic oppression. The campaign against John was a tax rebellion waged by a highly privileged class.
King John was the quintessential Bad King. His reputation is such that no other future monarch was named John. There were a number of Henrys, Richards, and Edwards, but he was the first and last John. In the centuries after Runnymede, anyone seeking a precedent to use against a bad king or a bad government had to look no further than the Magna Carta. If the Magna Carta had not existed, something else would have had to take its place. The reissue of the Magna Carta in 1216 gave the document a status beyond that of a mere peace treaty that, in any case, was repudiated within three months of it being agreed.
The wars of John, Henry III, and Edward I against France placed huge financial burdens on all of the English population, and especially the wealthy. It was to be expected that hard-pressed taxpayers would seek some protection against the increasing extractions of the Crown.
Tax was the cause of all the great constitutional struggles of English history. It was inevitable that first great dispute about tax would become iconic.
The Magna Carta matters today not because of its detailed outline of feudal rights and royal limitations— and certainly not because the barons were passionate about the equal rights of the citizenry—but because of the way the charter set the development of democratic liberalism in train. The requirement that taxes could only be levied with the common counsel of the realm was a crack in the heart of absolutist government. Not only was this power over tax a potent bargaining chip over the other activities of the Crown, but it was necessary for the functioning of those activities.
The most expensive pastime of the English royalty was waging war. Indeed, it was Angevin foreign policy that brought John’s kingship to a crisis. Likewise, Henry III found his reckoning over his foreign policy. Charles I lost the support of parliament within a few years of becoming king because of his wars. The foreign policy of monarchs, financed by taxes, were the vehicle for the scrutiny of the king.
Oppressive taxes require oppressive methods of collection. Taxpayers minimise, avoid, or just outright evade taxes that they are either unable to pay or consider unjust. Likewise, so much of King John’s brutality and arbitrary rule was a consequence of his attempt to soak up as much wealth from English lands as possible. Imposing harsh fines and charges on traditional feudal rights was John’s basic fiscal strategy.
Both the burden of taxation and the methods by which he enforced the taxes were brutal. And more importantly, the taxpayers felt that he was violating unwritten norms that governed the relationship between themselves and the state.
Indeed, the story of the Magna Carta tells us a great deal about this financial relationship. It matters how tax revenues are spent. Royal adventures may have been important to the monarchs but it was the barons, not the monarchs themselves, who were asked to finance the burden.
Over centuries, the Magna Carta became both less than the sum of its parts, and much more. The specific issues of thirteenth century taxation fell away. Yet the principles embodied in the Magna Carta did not disappear. They were fought over for the next eight centuries.
Some tax rebellions end in brutal suppression. Others result in civil war, revolution, and wholesale regime change. Yet what happened at Runnymede stands apart from other tax rebellions. A revolt of an unrepresentative elite forged liberal democracy. And now, the fundamental basis of liberal democracy is this: government must gain the consent of its citizens to take taxes from them.