Magna Carta and Liberty

“We have found in our history that we cannot take political and social stability for granted, that economic and democratic development is not an inexorable march towards progress, that reversal of fortunes and setbacks constitute perennial obstacles in the life of any nation and need to be combatted and overcome.

We must therefore make the effort to explain and promote democratic values so that all of us understand that the society we want cannot survive without such values…”

Very often we tend to adhere to a whiggish interpretation of history, viewing our development and our democracy along a line, moving inexorably towards improvement and betterment. Many know that this concept, while having admittedly more than a grain of truth when viewed in the long term, is erroneous.

But History is complex, muddy and murky, far from the sanitized version that is dished out outside academic circles and learned journals. Democracy and development follow uneven and haphazard paths and contain many vicissitudes. In fact nothing is inevitable and it requires constant vigilance to remain on the right path.

As we commemorate the 800 years of Magna Carta when King John sealed the Great Charter, we find that a number of its clauses have contributed to promoting democracy and the rule of law throughout the world.

One of them stipulated that ‘No free man is to be arrested or imprisoned or dispossessed, or outlawed or exiled or in any way destroyed nor will we will go against him, nor will we send against him, save by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.’

The charter has been invoked to defend freedom in the case of Nelson Mandela and more recently in the case of the Chagos when the judgment of the High Court was quashed because the inhabitants of Chagos had been exiled by Royal prerogative, contravening the clause ‘no man shall be exiled except by the lawful judgement of his equals.’

Yet the Magna Carta, as David Carpenter has argued, was a conservative document, elitist, safeguarding the narrow interests of the barons. The ideas behind the Charter were not new at all and were observed in the laws of many European countries before 1215 and can even be traced to Henry I Coronation Charter in 1100. But in the course of time the Henry I Charter was forgotten until it was revived in 1215 by the barons.

Moreover the liberties were not granted to all men but only to freemen and were not extended to villeins, the poor in English society. It was quashed by the Pope, and the Charter which went on the statute book was not John’s Charter but a revised version by King Henry III in 1225. It was only in 1350 that the liberties applied to all freemen when free man was changed into “man of whatever condition’’.

Nevertheless the Charter was a major milestone in the march of liberty and the rule of law, as it brought the king beneath the law since John had proved himself ‘brimful of evil’. Hence liberties which were one enjoyed by the Barons had been forgotten and had to be reinstated once again by the Charter of 1215. It shows us that throughout history nothing is permanent unless we make the effort to reproduce, reinstate, improve and reinvent.

Nearer at home, it is widely acknowledged that there is a post-electoral uneasiness about our democratic system which many will attribute to a number of factors — the flaws of the First Past The Post system or the need for a certain amount of proportional representation, new electoral boundaries or a new law to regulate the financing of elections. These debates are well known and have preoccupied the public for some time. After the elections they have been laid to rest because our elections are not based on issues but mostly and explicitly on electing a Prime Minister.

However it is still legitimate to think again about our democracy and to ask ourselves if it is an empty shell devoid of democratic values. That we are a democracy is beyond doubt. We vote regularly at elections, may be out of habit, but we do not seem to go beyond that. It is true that our system does not propose an ideal democracy; as such a pure type does not exist anywhere in the world. But we have to admit that our democracy has certain weaknesses,one of the major ones residing in the fact that we are not imbued enough with democratic values.

This may be traced to our history during in the course of which we have developed an instrumental view of democracy. We expect government to take all initiatives. In Mauritius, as in many new societies, government came first and society afterwards. The Dutch East India Company occupied the island and then tried to develop a society. It was the same for the French; it was the administration which was set up first and which encouraged soldiers and sailors to settle down by providing them with lands, tools, slaves, women and a market for their goods. The British had no choice but to take over from the French, and perpetuated a centralised administration.

It is towards the colonial administration that we had looked up to for everything and we still adopt the same attitude to the post-colonial state. The State has become the great provider to accommodate the various demands of the population and of the different interest groups, providing jobs, loans, price support schemes, lands, contracts, pensions and markets, and even their project labels, in brief the realisation of all individuals’ and group interests. This materialist approach has turned government into a resource to be captured and politics into a crass business transaction between the State and the citizen, devoid of any political values or ideology.

The result of this materialist approach has been a kind of political culture which consciously evaluates the cost benefits of political participation, will vote massively at general elections but not at municipal elections. Such an attitude downgrades moral values, hinders the emergence of a civic culture, and reduces us to passive spectators of a political system which thrives on secretive processes. An economistic and pragmatic approach to politics is a dangerous recipe, and renders society vulnerable in times of economic turmoil when governments fail to deliver the economic goods and frustrate the expectations of society.

We have to go beyond mere democratic formalism and make a great effort towards defusing democratic principles and values in the wider society. We have found in our history that we cannot take political and social stability for granted, that economic and democratic development is not an inexorable march towards progress, that reversal of fortunes and setbacks constitute perennial obstacles in the life of any nation and need to be combated and overcome.

During the French Revolution years in Isle de France, one section of society – the coloured people – obtained freedom but, with General Decaen, to quote an epigram, ‘they (coloured) went to bed free and woke up unfree’. We must therefore make the effort to explain and promote democratic values so that all of us understand that the society we want cannot survive without such values.

  • Published in print edition on 10 July 2015

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