Peter Jones

The Magna Carta was hopelessly behind the times

The Greeks and Romans got there first, obviously

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Important as the Magna Carta (ad 1215) has been as a founding myth for everything we hold dear about law and liberty, it was already hopelessly behind the times. Greeks and Romans had got there long before.

Our political system derives from monarchs advised by a private council: first, the Anglo-Saxon ‘Witan’, and from 1066 the Norman curia regis, ‘king’s court’, the origin of parliament in the 13th century. The Athenians had established, 1,700 years earlier, the principle that all law be made, and all office held in rotation, by private citizens (the demos), when they developed the world’s first and last democracy, with its ‘equality of speech’ (isêgoria) and equality before the law (isonomia). Greek passion for independence and contempt for monarchy are well exemplified by the advice which (according to Herodotus) the Spartan Demaratus offered the Persian king Xerxes during his invasion of Greece in 481 bc: ‘It is thanks to the power of the law that Greeks have protected themselves against despotism... so they are free but not in all respects: their despot is the law. They stand in secret awe of that far more than they do of you.’ Aristotle (4th century bc) theorised at length about different types of constitution, distinguishing the monarchos from the turannos by the extent to which they allowed citizens to be free agents and acted out of self-interest.

When kings ruled Rome (traditionally from 753–509 bc), they were advised by a council of elders, who transmuted into the senate when Rome threw out the kings and became a republic. Within 50 years the common people had their own assembly and a right to veto senate business, and a law code had been established dealing with community and individual relationships. In his On Laws (1st century bc), the statesman Cicero asserted the principle that the state, though invested with authority, should understand the limits of its power, and the citizens the extent of their obligations to obey it.

In the UK in 1918, all males (and females) finally got the vote. Inch by painful inch, we are getting there.