Monday, December 8, 2008

Frost/Sheen and the Magna Carta

Haven't seen the movie but I love the commercial where Frank Langella as Nixon says his most outrageous line: "If the President does it it's not illegal!" Michael Sheen as Frost says, with a look of incredulity on his face; "Excuse me?" Because he can't believe Nixon just said that.

It's a line that has ticked me off for years, it goes against every principle of the Rule of Law in a democratic nation. And to say it to a Brit would be really ridiculous because it is practically burnt into their DNA.

That's because of the Magna Carta. Most people have heard of it but don't really know what it is or what it actually says. Many have heard it was the start of Western Democracy and it is, although no democracy actually existed in it. It did what was first needed in a society before democracy could happen, it established the rule of law as supreme, only from that concept could true democracy grow. It's hard to describe how incredible an idea this was at the time, all over Europe it was a given that Kings were God's representative on Earth and his rule WAS the law, and he could do what he wanted.

To see what happened we need Robin Hood. While Robin never existed the framework of England in the story is reasonably true. Richard the Lionhearted was king of England, but that didn't mean much because in his ten years as king he only set foot in England for a few months. He was raised in Normandy (remember the Norman Invasion?) and spoke French not English. And soon after becoming king he went off to the Crusades where he fought Saladin to a standstill and earned fame as a great military leader.

Because he was so removed from England in many ways he really did not care about it so he left his brother, Prince John, in charge. And yes, he really was evil, or at least an asshole. After Richard left the Middle East he still didn't want to settle down and he was killed when an arrow went through his throat while holding a siege on a German castle 10 years after becoming king. So John inherited the throne.

King John was so bad (no other kings have been named John since then) that all his nobles rebelled. Despite how kings were looked at they really needed their nobles' support, at least some of them, in order to rule. John not only pissed them all off but made them realize that none of them were safe from his arbitrary wrath.

Now it's important to note how everything from this point on was totally unprecedented in Europe of the Middle Ages, these things were not even thought of let alone pursued. Which shows just how bad John was to have pushed his nobles to do this. They got together and wrote the Magna Carta (Great Charter). Here is what Wikipedia says:
Magna Carta required King John of England to proclaim certain rights (mainly of his barons), respect certain legal procedures, and accept that his will could be bound by the law. It explicitly protected certain rights of the King's subjects, whether free or fettered — most notably the writ of habeas corpus, allowing appeal against unlawful imprisonment.
For the first time rights were given to the King's subjects, he couldn't just do anything he wanted to them. He also had to be bound by law. Think of how amazing this is when up until that time Kings had absolute power and could not even be questioned. Even the serfs had rights! Every man, no matter what, had the right to habeas corpus, which means they had a right to know why they were imprisoned and had the right to defend themselves

For the first time in the Western world the Rule of Law was named supreme, even above the power of the king, that the king himself, was subject to the rule of law. Meaning he could not break it and if he did he could be held accountable.

This happened in 1215 and was one of the truly great revolutionary moments in the history of Europe, and in our history since we came from Europe. This is why a Brit would be taken aback by a mere President claiming to have a right not even a king in England could claim in over 7 centuries.

And here we are today, with Bush having said what Nixon said and he successfully demolished habeas corpus, the very foundation of the Rule of Law. If the Rule of Law is gone then we have the Rule of Men and presidents become kings. I doubt that any American would approve of that if they truly understood what it all meant. But for most Americans terms like the Magna Carta, habeas corpus and the rule of law are just things they have heard but aren't quite sure of their meaning or importance.

No comments: