Using Magna Carta to justify Human Rights Act repeal ‘insult to British history’ – Amnesty

Prime Minister David Cameron, speaks during an event marking the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in Runymede, Britain. (Reuters / Stefan Wermuth)
Tory plans to sever ties with the European Court of Human Rights by repealing the Human Rights Act and replacing it with a British Bill of Rights will protect the legacy of a 13th century piece of parchment Britons should be proud of, David Cameron says.

Cameron made the remark at a ceremonial event commemorating the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta in Runnymede, Surrey. Historians say the spot, located near Windsor, was where King John of England sealed the charter in 1215.

Penned in Medieval Latin, the 3,500-word Magna Carta is interpreted by some as the world’s first declaration of the rule of law. It was drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury to broker peace between King John and 25 progressive English barons, who sought a fairer system of governance.

The archaic charter promised access to swift avenues of justice, protection against the illegal detainment of barons and caps on feudal payments to the Crown.

Addressing crowds at Runnymede, Cameron said the document heralded democracy as we know it.

He went on to claim the “good name” of human rights has been manipulated and eroded in Britain in recent years.

“For centuries, Magna Carta has been quoted to help promote human rights and alleviate suffering all around the world,” he said.

“But here in Britain ironically, the place where those ideas were first set out, the good name of human rights has sometimes been distorted and devalued,” the PM continued.

Cameron said the task of reviving the reputation of these rights lies with this generation. He said Britain’s legal system is key to this objective.

“It is our duty to safeguard the legacy, the idea, the momentous achievement of those barons. And there couldn’t be a better time to reaffirm that commitment than on an anniversary like this,” he said.

Cameron’s remarks have angered human rights advocates in Britain, particularly Labour and Conservative ex-lord chancellors, who warn against dismantling the Human Rights Act and breaking away from the ECHR.

Speaking to RT on Monday, Amnesty International UK’s Head of Policy and Government Affairs Allan Hogarth accused the PM of hijacking a historical event to further the Conservative agenda.

“David Cameron’s use of the anniversary of Magna Carta to justify scrapping the Human Rights Act will have those 13th-century barons spinning in their highly-ornate, lead-lined coffins,” he said.

“Any move to scrap the Act would be a real blow for human rights in this country and around the world.”

Hogarth warned the Human Rights Act must not be discarded on a whim.

“Ordinary people across the world are still fighting for the rights we enjoy in the UK – we must not let politicians take away these hard-won rights at the stroke of a pen,” he said.

“Rather than grandstanding at Runnymede, the prime minister should be standing up for human rights at home and abroad.”

Speaking to crowds at Monday's Magna Carta event, Cameron claimed the charter changed the world.

“The limits of executive power, guaranteed access to justice, the belief that there should be something called the rule of law, that there shouldn’t be imprisonment without trial – Magna Carta introduced the idea that we should write these things down and live by them,” he said.

“That might sound like a small thing to us today. But back then, it was revolutionary, altering forever the balance of power between the governed and the government.”

However, Professor of Medieval History at the University of East Anglia Nicholas Vincent told the New York Times the Magna Carta is “a load of tripe.”

“The myth of Magna Carta lies at the whole origin of our perception of who we are as an English-speaking people, freedom-loving people who’ve lived with a degree of liberty and under a rule of law for 800 years,” he said.

“It’s a load of tripe, of course. But it’s a very useful myth.”

Labour leadership contender and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper accused Cameron of trying to “hijack” the ceremony.

“The Prime Minister is trying to hijack this important celebration of Magna Carta to push his ill-thought-through plans for abolishing the Human Rights Act,” she said, warning the move “demeans his office.”

Neither King John nor the 13th century rebel barons, who were central to the Magna Carta’s founding, upheld its terms. The age-old charter was eventually scrapped by Pope Innocent III, sparking the First Barons’ War.

In 2012, critics slammed Cameron for being historically illiterate after it emerged the PM knew little of the Magna Carta.

Cameron embarrassed himself live on air in an interview with the Late Show’s David Letterman, after the presenter quizzed him on British history.

Asked for the translation of Magna Carta (Latin for ‘the Great Charter’) Cameron fell silent, unable to offer a response.