The Magna Carta: from absolute power to limitations and accountability

Pia Waugh

The Magna Carta is an important part of our democratic history and provides some useful lessons to this very day. It was a key step in placing limitations on the absolute power of the Crown, but it also put unprecedented power into the hands of an elite business class which tool several more centuries to rebalance.

Unlimited power by a King or Emperor has always been tricky for community and commerce. Unpredictable taxes, arbitrary decisions, illegal imprisonment and other random enforcement, wars based on personal vendettas, controls over communications and transport and international relations based on personality all make for an unstable environment in which to prosper. The King at the time believed himself to be above the law and a group of rebel barons strongly disagreed. The Magna Carta was, broadly speaking, an uneasy truce between the King and the barons which had the practical impact of limiting the power of the King and creating a more stable and sustainable environment. Similar to any major power struggle, it was accompanied by drama and violence.

The limitations on power imposed by the Magna Carta established the basis of the Westminster democratic political system, by having a group of people, albeit barons, responsible to holding the King to account. Limitations of power needs to be accompanied by accountability, or the limitations are meaningless. However, this model was still very based on the elite holding the super-elite to account, and did not have the characteristics of representative democracy we see today. That was to come later.

The Magna Carta saw the distribution of power from the King to the elite class but it was the various independence movements of the 18th century that led to the distribution of power from the elite to the common people. The American secession from Britain could have been based on a simple call for national independence, but it used the argument of the ‘unalienable rights’ of all men as the basis for this secession, and went even further to declare in the United States Declaration of Independence that any government that did not uphold these fundamental human rights could legitimately be overthrown by the people. This created a further shift in power from Kings to commoners, where the powerful were all accountable to the general population.

The Australian democratic tradition was born yet another century later, and it combined aspects of both the English and American systems. A British Westminster system with a US style Senate of the people, with no Lords in sight. We may not have a Bill of Rights like the US, but we have at least culturally adopted the principles of all citizens in Australia having certain unalienable rights, including the right to hold our Parliament and Government to account. Ironically, centuries after the elite business class created a limitation on power of the King, we have ended up with a representative system that places limitations on the power of everyone, including businesses, to establish greater stability and prosperity.

In recent decades the Internet has rapidly further evolved the expectations and individual capacity of commoners through, for the first time in history, the mass distribution of traditional powers. With a third of the world online and countries starting to enshrine access to the Internet as a human right, individuals have more power than ever before to influence and shape their lives and the lives of people around them. It is easier that ever for people to congregate, albeit virtually, according to common interests and goals, regardless of their location, beliefs, language, culture or other age old barriers to collaboration. This is having a direct and dramatic impact on governments and traditional power structures everywhere, and is both extending and challenging the principles and foundations of democracy everywhere.

In summary, the Magna Carta remains an important part of Australian democratic history, but must be always considered in the context of subsequent influential documents such as the US Declaration of Independence, and the traditions that were adopted into our own unique democracy, which I would argue is an incredible blend of the British and American systems. Australia has one of the most open, least corrupt, and most representative democracies in the world, and it is always helpful to understand and remember how we got here. Largely through limitations on power and systems of accountability that can be traced, at least in part, back to the Magna Carta.

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