Of all the surreal moments of the UK’s coronavirus lockdown, few will top the seemingly genuine video of the boss of a soft-play centre telling two visiting police officers to read the passage from the Magna Carta he had hung on a nearby wall. The cops are there to tell him he is open in breach of Covid-19 regulations, but the owner knows he has the law on his side. Take that, copper! You should have read your 1215 statutes before you came in here quoting Tier 3 regulations at me.
Perhaps he was relying on the clause stating: “No Earl or Baron in possession of a soft-play centre may be compelled to close the climbing area, ball pits or the plastic slides, or be ordered to clean it with Dettol wipes every 15 minutes.” However, this was removed from the texts after the Black Death was found to have spread largely via the bouncy castles of Plantagenet England.
No doubt this argument might have worked on medieval law enforcement. “Gadzooks man, it sayeth here that we may not shut down this soft-play centre.” “You’re right, we shall have to do him for witchcraft instead.”
OK, I made that clause up. But there is one that requires guardians to maintain “houses, parks, fish preserves, ponds [and] mills”. It does not specifically mention soft-play centres but it would certainly cover crazy-golf courses.
Apparently Clause 61 — a general defence of liberty — is the favoured defence. Another tweeter, called British Lives Matter, insists that displaying it prevents you being fined or closed for breaking lockdown regulations, presumably in the same way that carrying a rabbit’s foot brings you luck, or drinking disinfectant prevents you from catching Covid-19.
But perhaps one of the cops was a descendent of Gerard de Athée — specifically precluded from holding office under Clause 50, along with his kinsmen “Engelard de Cigogné, Peter, Guy, Andrew de Chanceaux, Guy de Cigogné” and several others. (This one’s real, look it up.)
The citing of Magna Carta in general life has always been a bit of a giveaway. I remember covering planning-committee meetings as a local reporter and seeing a well-spoken figure grandly explaining that a particular development fell foul of it and would have to be abandoned. The committee heard him in grave silence. Work on the site started two months later. Since then, the confident declaration of a Magna Carta defence has seemed a sure sign of a lost cause.
Four of the 63 clauses of Magna Carta are still held to have some validity in English law, and two in particular are a cornerstone of individual rights under the justice system. A close textual analysis of the remaining 59 suggests limited modern application. There are, for example, several parts of the Thames now openly flouting Clause 33’s ban on fish weirs.
Incidentally, the much-cited Clause 61 has quite a bit about the 25 barons who will enforce it. Mind you, The 25 Barons would be a good action-hero series — a bit like The A-Team but mainly looking out for illegal weirs.
Magna Carta was a vital step on the path to individual freedoms and the parliamentary democracy that passed the Covid-19 laws. But it is now, as the estimable David Allen Green puts it, “an ornament, not an instrument”. So why the continued reference to it? There are, after all, serious arguments against the restrictions but Magna Carta is not one of them.
The answer, I think, is that it is essentially used by people who do not like a particular law and think it should not apply to them but have no actual legal defence. Citing Magna Carta also plays to their puffed-up sense of being the true defenders of the nation, which at least adds irony to its deployment against a government of Brexiters. In any case, it is the self-righteous person’s legal equivalent of shouting, “Don’t want to!”
In the US, they would all carry guns, be anti-vaxxers and have “Live Free or Die” stickers on their cars. In the UK, they just stick up pictures of the Magna Carta and moan about face masks. We should be grateful for small mercies.
Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published