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The Disraeli Room

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Reflections on the Magna Carta: A constitutional angle on seeking the common good

24th July 2015

The recent anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta provides a helpful space in which to pause and take stock of the popular legitimacy of our political structures and institutions.

As many have pointed out, the retrospective writing of history is evident in the Magna Carta’s mythic status. As Theos’ Nick Spencer memorably put it recently, the whole episode of the Charter’s coming into being was in fact characterised by ‘accident, circumstance, self-interest, intransigence, and persistently low principle’.

Despite the ignominy of the circumstances of the Charter’s inception, its sealing nonetheless marked a major shift in the devolution of power and the role of civil society. This tradition of calling power to account and respecting the sovereignty of the distinct spheres that comprise our national life should be celebrated and protected- all the more so in an era that has seen an unprecedented erosion of our sense of common life.

The current disillusionment with political structures is well-documented and, arguably, well-deserved. Identity politics prevail, repeatedly demonstrating the belief that voters are fundamentally driven by self-interest. We have all seen how this generates ever more entrenched polarisation, shutting out the diversity of participants needed to bring long-lasting systemic change.

Alongside voter disillusionment and apathy, there has been a gradual weakening of civil society in the western world. Whilst valuing volunteerism, fewer and fewer people are willing to be actively involved in their communities. This increasing sense of disfranchisement and powerlessness runs in tandem with a centralised accumulation of power in this country.

The incredibly high turn-out for the Scottish independence referendum is a notable exception to this trend of political and civic disengagement. The sense of identity expressed through this turn-out must not be ignored; we need a wider discussion on rootedness and identity, acknowledging the multiple levels upon which we all build our sense of self and belonging. Lord Purvis’ recent remarks on the pressing need to design our future constitution resonate here- if the union is to hold, the good of the whole multi-national community must demonstrably be sought.

This call for a renewal of identity entails opposing centralised concentrations of power, whether in the hands of the market or the state. A healthy society is one which involves people at a deeper level in the decisions that affect them most. This recognition of the unique contribution of each citizen not only honours the dignity of each human person, but also acknowledges that viable solutions to the social problems that we all face require broad participation.

Subsidiarity must not be mistaken for simply enabling citizens to secure their own narrow interests more directly. Rather, the local devolution of power needs to be accompanied by what Robert Putnam terms “bridging social capital”, which he differentiates from “bonding social capital”. Whilst communities built on the latter form can quickly become inward looking cliques, bridging social capital is demonstrated through the confidence to encounter and include difference. Bridging social capital is evident in the existence of many of the institutions that comprise our national life, such as our schools, hospitals, and hospices.

The need for socially uniting institutions is particularly relevant in the context of the fragmented social landscape in which northern reindustrialisation is poised to take place. Flourishing cities depend on knowledge being shared through the integration of institutions such as teaching hospitals and law chambers into the civic fabric.
The true success of the Northern Powerhouse will depend on the ability of those involved to foster bridging solidarity, accompanied by the subsidiarity that fosters local initiative. Re-building strong intermediate institutions depends on these principles which acknowledge and express the dignity due to one another in our communities. It is not enough to simply pay lip service to these terms: policy-makers must keep on returning anew to working out what these look like in particular places.

This concern for the particular is at the heart of ResPublica’s vision for the common good, as we seek to broaden and re-invigorate political discourse. At a time of questioning our national collective identity and values, we must begin by returning to what it is to belong, and flourish, in the local places and institutions in which we find ourselves.

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