I am most touched to have been asked to join you here this evening at the British Library and to assist in the opening of this exhibition which has been put together in celebration of the extraordinary agreement that was first assented to by King John in 1215, known as Magna Carta.
Although first sealed some 800 years ago, Magna Carta remains a living presence today. In 2006, an opinion poll suggested that most people believe that Magna Carta day, 15th June, should be a national holiday. That was a timely rebuke to those who thought that Magna Carta had been largely forgotten; and that, if it was remembered at all, it was only through the immortal words of Tony Hancock, who asked, `Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?’
For me, Magna Carta is just as important today as it was in 1215, for what it meant, was believed to mean, and symbolized in subsequent centuries. Ladies and Gentlemen, it is this significance that brings us together today. I do not want to pretend that Magna Carta is a charter of democracy in the modern sense; and we must not forget that of its sixty-three clauses, only three remain in force today. But its principles, as much as its detailed provisions, remain of vital importance.
The first principle, which resonates through the history of Britain, and many other countries, is that government must be subject to law, and a well-functioning democracy cannot, of course, exist without respect for the rule of law. Government under the law predates democracy and the concept of human rights, but it is surely the basis for both. Indeed, I believe that William Pitt the Elder described Magna Carta as the very 'bible of the English constitution'.
Secondly, Magna Carta resembled a contract between the Crown and the 'community of the realm', and it gave permanent rights to that community, even its humblest members. For example, it insisted that the King could not tax his subjects without their consent, with the implication that consent can only be legitimately given by a body properly summoned for the purpose in other words a parliament - and a parliament did indeed come into existence in the 1250s.
There are two particular provisions within Magna Carta that I would like to highlight in particular, Ladies and Gentlemen, as they are still important for us today. The first is `No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possession... except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.’ The second is `To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice’.
To think that these sentences were agreed and written eight hundred years ago is quite astonishing. I do not mean to overstate their importance. But, notwithstanding the fact that liberty has experienced many ups and downs over the centuries, a flame was lit in that wet meadow and I would like to suggest that Magna Carta itself truly has inspired ideas of freedom for people of all shades of political opinion throughout our history from the time of the Civil War in the seventeenth century, through to the American War of Independence, and to debates in the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Indeed, I understand it has often been and is still cited in the American Supreme Court. Its symbolic role as the protector of liberty remains as resonant today as it was when King John first sealed it. I am therefore delighted to open this fascinating exhibition, which so ably explains the story of Magna Carta through the ages and which, if I am allowed to say this, should surely make us feel just a little bit proud to be British!