We need a Charter of the Commons to overcome the Charter of Greed

I’ve been involved in a few projects related to the Magna Carta 800th anniversary. And today is when it all comes to a head. Horse pageants. Smiling royalty. And the humble peasants gather to celebrate… but celebrate what, exactly? I have to say, I’ve had moments where I did wonder!

Let’s clear this up, Magna Carta is not the great democratising vision that some would believe, it’s not a social leveller and it did nothing to promote social mobility or the rights of the majority of citizens. It’s focussed on the relationship between the nobility and the Crown. It said a lot about land and fishing and royal power. It said a lot about inheritance: what the great charter did most of was protect the property and rights of the barons.

But in the process it set the ball rolling for our modern-day justice and human rights. It said for the first time that no man (their words), the monarch included, was above the law. It said for the first time that we all have a right to be judged by our peers. It gave us for the first time standard measurements for beer. So it does matter, just in a slightly abstract way.

Yet, if such a document were proposed today there would be a public outcry over the inherent protectionism and cronyism.

TTIP and TPPA spring to mind. They are great charters of the global corporations (aided by their friends in the US government). From what little of them we are allowed to see, both appear to have the potential to do severe harm to our individual and long-fought for rights. Are they an inverse Magna Carta?

Perhaps we need look a little further ahead than 1215 too. We need to give more than a passing nod to 1225 and the Charter of the Forests. Perhaps wrongly seen as Magna Carta’s poor relation, this sets out our rights to use common land (which then was mostly forested, hence the title) to graze animals, collect wood and other things. In other words, it protected the wider populations’ right to the commons they needed to sustain their lives and families (remember, this pre-dates our sense of economy).

David Cameron suggests that the Human Rights Act goes against the principles of Magna Carta. I would argue the oppposite, that it’s a continuation of a tradition that started with Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forests. I would argue that our rights to justice and access to the commons, when translated into a modern context, matter more than ever. Yet they are, thanks to some governments and corporations, more at risk of erosion than they have been in many years. Whether we’re talking about revoking the Human Rights Act for a weaker replacement (which seems to have been parked, for now), zero-hours contracts or TTIP/TPPA our rights are seriously at risk.

A modern Charter, we might call it a Charter of the Commons, would look at all our rights. Our rights to life and liberty, to free speech and privacy. It would look at our right to work and to be properly rewarded for that, to shelter, food, power and a neutral internet. And, yes, the latter does matter because information is now both power and commodity and is therefore collected, brokered and re-sold for profit against our interests.

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