Today Runnymede meadows are looked after by the National Trust of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but they were very nearly lost to development in the 1920s, only saved by the generosity of the Fairhavens, a wealthy Anglo-American family who recognised Runnymede’s significance and its transatlantic connections. They went on to bequeath Anglesey Abbey to the Trust too (one of the venues for our forthcoming International Conference of National Trusts this September in Cambridge …)
This anniversary offers us a moment to reflect upon the world-wide spread of ideas and values that have shaped our politics since the medieval period, and to consider the responsibility of National Trust like organisations not only for addressing contemporary issues through the lens of the past, but also for involving people in the protection of their heritage.
Back in 1215, a disgruntled group of barons were asserting their rights and demanding that their unpopular King be made accountable to the rule of law. By June, King John had agreed to seal the proposed ‘Great Charter of Liberty’, enshrining their rights in law.
The most famous and important of the 63 clauses enshrined the right of “free men” to justice and a fair trial. This idea of protecting individuals from the power of the sovereign lay at the heart of Magna Carta and has since been adopted by the global community as the means to ensure respect for the fundamental human rights of all people.
Magna Carta influenced the 1776 Declaration of Independence and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor Roosevelt, Chair of the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations, said on its adoption: ‘We stand today at the threshold of a great event both in the life of the United Nations and in the life of mankind. This declaration may well become the international Magna Carta for all men everywhere’ (Paris, December 1948).
800 years since it was sealed, Magna Carta still matters today as the foundation stone supporting the freedoms and human rights enjoyed by millions of people in over 100 countries. It has had a huge impact all over the world on constitutional and democratic development and by celebrating together today we stand as one global community to reaffirm the principles of fair justice and human rights.
Magna Carta has recently been described as ‘the most valuable export of Great Britain to the rest of the world’. (Many might think of the National Trust as another potent export … !) Reflecting today on these principles reminds us of the role of the National Trust movement in the development of active citizenship and participatory governance. Through membership, donation or volunteering, National Trusts involve people of all backgrounds with a shared interest in conservation, building civic engagement and social cohesion.
It will be a huge pleasure to be part of the Magna Carta celebrations today and next month, I have been invited to join a brainstorming session on Participatory Governance of Cultural Heritage organised by the Voice of Culture, along with 40 representatives from the European heritage sector.
Our cultural heritage belongs to all of us. It is a common good, shared by communities. As such, the role of all people and the rights of groups of interested citizens in its maintenance, management and development is ever more recognised and is a principle the National Trusts of the world hold dear. By assuring access – both to the heritage itself and to decisions taken about it – we will secure its future and its place at the heart of the community.
And what greater demonstration of that today – Four and a half thousand people in a field in Surrey celebrating the values of Magna Carta!