Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Monday 16 June 2014

So... Magna Carta

Firstly let me just say that I am correct and that David Cameron is wrong: Magna Carta does not take the definite article.

So happy to have got that off my chest.

Our Prime Minister, ladies and gentlemen,
demonstrating his ignorance… again
The Prime Minister went to Eton and read PPE at Oxford. That’s Politics, Philosophy and Economics. If anyone should know what Magna Carta is it bloody well ought to be him. He couldn’t even accurately translate the words ‘Magna’ meaning ‘Great’ and ‘Carta’ meaning ‘Charter’. Honest to goodness I would have thought a man with his background could have bloody guessed at it; it’s hardly rocket science, and certainly not for someone who probably studied Latin, and no doubt has quaffed from his share of magnums of champagne even if he’s never eaten an ice-cream off a stick.

I studied Magna Carta, if you can call it studying at that age, when I was nine or ten, in the third year of primary school, what we now call year five. I made a facsimile, stained with instant coffee granules and burnt around the edges. I believe my father supervised the matches. I haven’t studied it since.

I always think of Magna Carta as ‘Big Map’. Then I smile at my idiocy and switch to ‘Grand Design’. I remember that it was signed in 1215 at Runymede by King John, and that it was pretty well forced on him by ‘The People’. The People in this instance were, of course the nobility. Nevertheless, the document basically denied the King the right to do whatever the hell he pleased, and gave The People the right to some recourse to law, some Liberties.

I always think of Magna Carta as a sort of addendum to the Doomsday Book. In 1086 we enumerated who we were and in 1215 we gave ourselves some basic tenets to live by.

I don’t remember much else, and I’m guessing the stuff I think I’ve remembered hardly scratches the surface on the subject. I know Henry I had signed a Charter of Liberties a hundred years before Magna Carter, and other monarchs put their signatures to other documents before him. I know that there was stuff going on with the Pope. I know King John wasn’t popular, but I didn’t study this bit of history in much depth. 

I thought we all knew that Magna Carta is considered to be the first document that resembles a constitution and the one on which others, and in particular the American Constitution are based. Clearly that assumption was wrong.

The weekend newspapers were full of the idea that ‘British Values’ should be taught in our schools. I’m back to David Cameron. Our schools are in crisis, and apparently his answer to that knotty problem is that we should teach British Values.

I read several debates in several papers about what British Values are, about what David Cameron meant, and about what should be taught. 

What a lot of utter nonsense.

Values should not be taught in school at all. Values should be taught in the home, at least to begin with.

I’m not suggesting that values should not be part of school life. Of course there should be rules, and of course everyone in school should be expected to adhere to them. If rules are broken, sanctions should be applied. 

That’s as far as it should go. School is a microcosm of society. Society has rules. People have values.

My point is that we should teach subjects in school. We should teach reading, writing and Maths. We should teach History and Geography and the Sciences. We should teach languages. We should teach Art and Music, and, yes, let’s teach Religious Studies, too.

If we give our children a broad based education, if we teach them to think rigorously and to question, what makes anybody think they won’t grow to be adults with values?

What makes David Cameron think that there is anything intrinsically more valuable about an Englishman’s or a Scotsman’s value system than there is a Frenchman’s or a Ghanaian’s? What makes him think that my value system has any more in common with a random resident of say Liverpool than it does with any Berliner?

My personal morality is based far more on my experience of life than on anything else, and that has been informed by my education. I was very lucky to get a good one. My values are not British, and, to some extent, at least, they weren’t given to me by my family, although their roots are probably there.

My values have built up and been informed by the people who influenced my life. That began with my mother and the community of women I grew up with as a child. It included some of the wonderful men and women who taught me, of course it did. It included friends and colleagues and lovers. It included the people who shaped me. It included the people I wanted to be more like and the people I wanted to be less like.

Many of the people who influenced me are dead. Some of them have been dead for decades, some for centuries, and one or two for a millennium. Some of the people who have influenced me were writers and thinkers. I have been influenced by the people that I read.

Don’t tell our children what to think or the values they should have. Give them a bloody education and teach them to think for themselves. I honestly believe you’ll find that good values will follow. I think you’ll find that those values are universal.

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