Sunday, 15 June 2008

What say the reeds?

As David Davis reminded us the other day, today marks the anniversary of Magna Carta - the 793rd. The way things are going, on its 800th birthday in seven years' time there may not be much left to celebrate, though I retain the hope that a Conservative government will manage to undo the worst excesses of NuLab's surveillance state. The Observer is reporting that Bob Marshall-Andrews (the only Labour MP I would ever consider voting for) wants to help Davis's campaign. While this doesn't surprise me - and it will certainly annoy the hell out of the Labour leadership - he could go one better and fight his own by-election. I'm sure the Tories and the Lib Dems would give him a fair wind, and if Labour threw him out they would be surely forced to field a candidate, who I have no doubt would be soundly thrashed.

The conventional wisdom around Westminster remains that David Davis's decision is, if not clinically insane, at least highly counter-productive, both for himself and for his cause. On the other hand, some commentators, including Matthew Parris and Andrew Rawnsley, have begun to notice the very different reaction in the country at large. It's too early to tell, really, what the impact of Davis's campaign will be; much will surely depend on how the story is reported. If the media continue to concentrate on the Westminster Village angle, on alleged splits at the top of the Conservative party and Davis's career prospects, then his gesture may indeed come to very little.

If he is allowed to make his arguments properly, then I am convinced that an apparently unsympathetic public opinion is ready to be brought round. The presence of a credible opposing candidate would ensure a proper debate, at least. The Akehurst solution - find a victim of terror or an anti-terror cop to oppose Davis, fighting Labour's corner by proxy - has been roundly condemned, and rightly, as a morally-bankrupt and cowardly idea, the sort of thing we expect from New Labour. But I don't think Davis should fear it. If the battle for civil liberty in this country is to be won, it must first be fought; and as Hannibal discovered you can't achieve a decisive battle unless the enemy comes out to fight.

(In an unexpected twist, according to a report in the Financial Times, it seems that discussions about fielding such a candidate were held at Sun editor Rebekah Wade's 40th birthday party on Thursday night. The name they came up with was Rachel North. Yes, that Rachel North. Unsurprisingly, she is not impressed.)

As for Magna Carta itself, that famous document was neither as radical nor as unprecedented as legend insists. Ethelred the Unready had been forced to accept a similar declaration two centuries before. But its importance as a symbol shouldn't be overlooked. Nor should the circumstances of its promulgation. King John was forced to agree to it because he was weak, was faced with revolt, and feared for his throne. It was ever thus. Strong governments do not voluntarily concede rights to their people or restrict their own power. Lord Acton famously said that all power tends to corrupt; he might have added that it tends to accumulate. In the past decade it has been accumulating rapidly and hiding itself in places less and less amenable to democratic control.

I leave you with Rudyard Kipling's corny but memorable poem, What Say the Reeds at Runnymede, in which the barons who forced King John's hand are made to seem like a public school cricket team:

At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
What say the reeds at Runnymede?
The lissom reeds that give and take,
That bend so far, but never break,
They keep the sleepy Thames awake
With tales of John at Runnymede.

At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
Oh, hear the reeds at Runnymede:
'You musn't sell, delay, deny,
A freeman's right or liberty.
It wakes the stubborn Englishry,
We saw 'em roused at Runnymede!

When through our ranks the Barons came,
With little thought of praise or blame,
But resolute to play the game,
They lumbered up to Runnymede;
And there they launched in solid line
The first attack on Right Divine,
The curt uncompromising "Sign!'
They settled John at Runnymede.

At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
Your rights were won at Runnymede!
No freeman shall be fined or bound,
Or dispossessed of freehold ground,
Except by lawful judgment found
And passed upon him by his peers.
Forget not, after all these years,
The Charter signed at Runnymede.'

And still when mob or Monarch lays
Too rude a hand on English ways,
The whisper wakes, the shudder plays,
Across the reeds at Runnymede.
And Thames, that knows the moods of kings,
And crowds and priests and suchlike things,
Rolls deep and dreadful as he brings
Their warning down from Runnymede!

4 comments:

oh, go on then, I'll bite said...

"The conventional wisdom around Westminster remains that David Davis's decision is, if not clinically insane, at least highly counter-productive, both for himself and for his cause. On the other hand, some commentators, including Matthew Parris and Andrew Rawnsley, have begun to notice the very different reaction in the country at large. It's too early to tell, really, what the impact of Davis's campaign will be; much will surely depend on how the story is reported"

precis: no one has a scooby WTF he's doing and we'll all reserve our opinion until wee know which way the wind is blowing.

How is that 'countering complacency, received opinions' ?

Does your 'wait and see what everyone else is saying about this nonsense before blogging it' DEFINE incoherent thought ?

The Heresiarch said...

I said what I thought about David Davis on Thursday. But I'm not mystic Meg.

Olive said...

I retain the hope that a Conservative government will manage to undo the worst excesses of NuLab's surveillance state

We all hope that, but do you really think that's going to happen? I know that Cameron says he will scrap the ID card, but what about all the other insidious powers that Blair and Brown have accrued and are in the pipeline? I suspect that Dave will find them a little too attractive.

valdemar said...

I'm a big fan of Kipling, who isn't read or appreciated nearly enough. But - though I find him a pain on religion - how about Chesterton?

'Smile at us, pay us, pass us,
But do not quite forget;
We are the people of England
Who have not spoken yet.'