12 January 2015

(As prepared for delivery)

AMBASSADOR BARZUN: Foreign Secretary, Lord Dyson, Sir Robert, my Lords, ladies and gentlemen.  Good evening …

I’m going to try to follow the advice of one of the Foreign Secretary’s predecessors, Lord Reading, who encouraged speakers to “always be shorter than anybody dared to hope”.

What a great British way of putting it.

A Baptist preacher from my adopted home-state of Kentucky made the same point in a different way: “Remember the five Bs: Be Brief, Brother, Be Brief.”

Thank you so much for making me a special part of this special evening.

And thanks to you, Sir Robert, and you, Lord Dyson – to the Trust and to all the members of the 800th Anniversary Committee for your leadership in this momentous year.

A year in which we shall attempt to answer definitively Tony Hancock’s profound question we hear quoted so often: “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you?  Did she die in vain?”

Contrary to his fears, Magna Carta did not, of course, die but lived.  Lived to inspire future generations – not least in America.

One of those was my great x10 grandfather, John Winthrop, who in 1630 left behind his home in Suffolk for a new life in a city he named Boston.

He knew that a stable society was built on a fundamental law, so as Governor of Massachusetts he called for one that was “in resemblance to a Magna Charta”.

And a century or so on from then, it was a bunch of rabble-rousing colonists in America — some of whom were English-educated lawyers — who took that idea … how do I put this diplomatically …  a few steps further.

Perhaps, though, Magna Carta found its most poignant expression 730 years on from Runnymede — at the end of World War II and with the discovery of Nazi atrocities.

In 1945, a question hung over what the world should do with those responsible.

As you can imagine, there were many loud voices demanding instant retribution, including summary execution.

Instead, we — the Allied forces led by America and Britain — resolved together to put the leaders of Nazi Germany on trial.

Think about the magnitude of that decision:  To let the rule of law dictate our response to the most grotesque humanitarian catastrophe in history.

The chief U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg, Justice Jackson captured it best in his now-famous quotation:

“That four great nations — flushed with victory and stung with injury — stay the hand of vengeance — and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law —–   is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason.”

We recognize similar dilemmas in our own time, and the rule of law always shines above us as the lodestar to our most noble values.

Values that — as the Foreign Secretary rightly pointed out — not only strengthen us but protect us.

President Obama sums it up:  “Time and again,” he said.  “Our values have been our best national security asset – in war and peace; in times of ease and in eras of upheaval.”

This legacy of Magna Carta is what we generally think about when that sacred document is mentioned.  And it is wonderfully heady stuff.

But — and this is the point I want to emphasize tonight — there is an even richer aspect to the Magna Carta story: and it’s this:  That 800 years ago it was all pretty earthy stuff.

Magna Carta is not a theoretical tract.

First & foremost it is a sensible, practical document dealing in concrete remedies for real, daily abuses: hence the fishweirs, the scutage, the escheats, and the disafforestation.

Maybe there were traces of the heroic.

But in reality these were selfish, power-hungry, angry, conniving, antagonistic barons – united mostly by their mistrust of King John; and his policy of taxation without representation.

To put it even more bluntly, Magna Carta was about rich & powerful guys cutting a deal with an even richer and more powerful guy.

There was little intention at the time to extend its provisions much wider, even though it did in part.

In short, Magna Carta in its original form is a confusing, bubbling soup — or mash (if you will) — of fermenting anger, distrust, hope, faith, belief, passion, rights and wrongs.

What we have done through the ages is distilled down that mash – little by little — and refined it to its core principles.

The legal scholar A.E. Dick Howard reminds us of this process in his book on Magna Carta.

How we find ourselves today saying things like “as it says in Chapter 39 of Magna Carta” as though it was written in nicely ordered chapters by authors conscious of compiling a “great work”.

In fact, back then there were no chapters, nor even the name Magna Carta.  That all came later.

And as we see with the 1297 examplar here at Guildhall – Magna Carta became a living document.

A text that through different iterations plotted the fits and starts of civilization’s progress.

To me, this messy, herky-jerky, evolutionary story of Magna Carta is just as inspiring — and can be especially instructional for our times.

Indeed, this background is nearly as useful as the principles themselves as we seek to promote the rule of law.

Consider the conflicts and disputes in today’s hotspots around the world.

Too readily we see only the factions & frictions; the fermenting of years of hostility and hurt and hatred.

As such, we can, let’s be honest — myself very much included — get a bit high & mighty and talk only in Abstract Terms, in capital letters from our safe perches in capital cities.

And sometimes what we see is indeed appalling.

But we should probably be quicker to regard these situations with a little more recognition and understanding.

Is it all just a toxic brew?

Or shouldn’t we consider the possibility that it is instead the beginning of a distillation process?

Without such recognition, it is all too easy to throw up our hands and give up our hopes when the heady ideals don’t match the earthy realities.

The enduring truth is that as the revolutions or crises fade from the headlines what is required is often simply getting down to it:  Doing the hard work of cutting deals, correcting them, keeping to them.

There are nations right now at the beginning of that process.

And with them in mind, we can look around ourselves at this moment, in this room, and be grateful to be farther along it.

So: as we leave here tonight and talk enthusiastically about Magna Carta and its commemoration in the run-up to June and beyond, we are right to hold up its essence — this distillate we have developed.

We are right to preach and practice these values.

We are right to be heady and not just earthy.

As one my favorite British authors C.S. Lewis put it: “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in.  Aim at earth and you get neither.”

And so let us be upstanding as we raise our glasses in thanks….

To the barons of 1215 — the accidental, dysfunctional, yet wonderful parents of Magna Carta; to the generations after — who distilled their ideas into the cultures, customs, and constitutions we have so fortunately inherited; and to all those engaged today in the hard, daily grind of making good on that inheritance wherever they are, in whatever way they can.