Daniel Hannan on Magna Carta


From: Daniel Hannan 


What Magna Carta initiated, rather, was constitutional government—or, as the terse inscription on the American Bar Association’s stone puts it, “freedom under law.”

It takes a real act of imagination to see how transformative this concept must have been. The law was no longer just an expression of the will of the biggest guy in the tribe. Above the king brooded something more powerful yet—something you couldn’t see or hear or touch or taste but that bound the sovereign as surely as it bound the poorest wretch in the kingdom. That something was what Magna Carta called “the law of the land.”

This phrase is commonplace in our language. But think of what it represents. The law is not determined by the people in government, nor yet by clergymen presuming to interpret a holy book. Rather, it is immanent in the land itself, the common inheritance of the people living there.

The idea of the law coming up from the people, rather than down from the government, is a peculiar feature of the Anglosphere. Common law is an anomaly, a beautiful, miraculous anomaly. In the rest of the world, laws are written down from first principles and then applied to specific disputes, but the common law grows like a coral, case by case, each judgment serving as the starting point for the next dispute. In consequence, it is an ally of freedom rather than an instrument of state control. It implicitly assumes residual rights.