HABEAS CORPUS

UNTIL the reforms that came into effect on the 394th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, there were far too many hereditary peers in the House of Lords. Their influence was absurdly disproportionate; their number had to be drastically cut; I reckon two dozen would have been about right. Instead they were abolished in their entirety and for ever.

It is a liberal and humanist myth to suppose we are the only generation ever to have got things right. I believe passionately in the truth of my own judgements and I ‘object’ to hereditary peers with the same vigour that, say, anti-hunt, urban fox-huggers apply to their quarry. But I also acknowledge that the parliamentary democracy we have received and now enjoy arose in part through the demands of the hereditary nobility centuries ago; strange but true.

If we were reinventing democracy for the twenty-first century, it would all be based exclusively and consistently on brand new modern principles. It would feel good and sound good; and yet there is something reassuring about the fact that even the bad guys (‘bad’ in that their position was based solely on birth, not on government patronage) help to maintain the democratic freedoms we desire.

Why am I getting so bothered about what happened two years ago? Recently Her Majesty¹s Government forced an Anti-Terrorism Bill through parliament, despite fierce opposition from the Lords. The most telling objection cited in the Press was that, if implemented, this modern piece of law would deny the ancient principle of habeas corpus.

Habeas Corpus is a proud principle, declaration and guarantee of human rights, arising from Article 39 of the Magna Carta of 1215, a charter of freedoms won through the efforts of the hereditary nobility. 1999: they were swept aside. 2001: one of their hard-won human rights was suppressed. I exaggerate? Of course. Hugely. But as a working clerk of so historically anomalous and ramshackled an institution as the CofE, I feel a responsibility to defend the values of others which matured alongside it. So the barons at Runnymede were a self-serving group of powerful men taking advantage of a weakened opposition? Nothing new there. More significant surely was the leadership given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who continued to support its principles of human rights even when suspended by the Pope himself.

NT

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