Views From The Side: 2015 – The Year Of The Magna Carta


This year we commemorate 800 years since the barons first sought to wrangle some control from the unchecked power of King John for themselves. Still, it is an interesting event demarking a time and place that is enlightening as a point of comparison for the modern day. The more we learn about social history, the more we can understand the ways in which the world has changed, and the ways in which it hasn't.

The Magna Carta was a document that was really just about allowing landowners more rights, but it did include rules about not beating your serfs to death, which is nice and something we could all benefit from in 2015. Serfs were a class of peasants in the medieval feudal system who were bound to the land they worked on, which was owned by barons (or sometimes bishops). Serfs worked for their keep, and were often tied by debt after poor harvests failed to produce enough to pay their landlords, and many were bullied into signing leases that lasted more than one generation. Kept in institutionalised poverty, effectively owned by their landlords, and penalised severely for trying to leave, medieval peasants had no way to rise above their stations. 

So why am I comparing modern life to 1215, the very heart of the medieval feudal era? Well I would be a hysterical idiot to suggest that we are now living in earthen huts, pooling our limp cattle together with our neighbours to plough our straggly brown fields of chaff and being beaten by our masters for running away (Naughty slippers aside – Ed.). But it is interesting, nonetheless, that David Cameron was looking back a couple of months ago to the Magna Carta as a more civilised and sensible model of rights to the European Human Rights Act, because when I look at the reforms proposed by George Osborne in his budget (old news, I know!) what I see is an attack on social mobility. Without social mobility the poorer inhabitants of this land, of whom most of us will belong, are entrapped in a type of modern day peasanthood – just as they were in 1215 but with less Catholicism and less corporal punishment! 

Peasanthood in 21st century England is different to any other. Gone are the farms or factories, instead we have low-wage jobs in unskilled sectors and zero hours contracts keeping a huge proportion of the population in poverty. In November last year the levels of working families living below the breadline mirrored that of workless families and these families are sustained by aides like tax credits, child and housing benefits. The government is increasing the minimum wage, yes, to keep in line with the current living wage but with the removal of tax credits and a crackdown on welfare spending it means many families will be working 40 hour weeks and yet still too poor to make ends meet. To be working full time and yet to be utterly destitute and crippled by debts, which will inevitably follow, is really nothing other than peasanthood.

The Conservative government is also incredibly keen on workfare schemes where long-term benefit claimants who may be mentally ill, otherwise unfit for work or just waiting for a job to arise that befits their talents or interest are going to have to work menial jobs of someone else's choosing to continue to recieve their support. The work isn't designed to give useful skills and does not benefit the claimant's long term career path. The other options are to live without money or to turn to crime. Slave, starve or go to jail? Sounds a lot like the choices faced by King John's subjects, no?

Finally, as if we'd all forgotten, the tuition fee hikes. How did our parents and grandparents rise above their station? Well, in recent decades they were able to get jobs and save or, failing that, educate themselves for free at a university or polytechnic college to equip themselves with the qualifications needed for higher paying jobs. Today that education is more or less mandatory if you want to get into many sectors and yet it comes with either an unfeasible bill of fees that will leave generations picking fluff out of their pockets for the rest of their lives to pay back. What's more, £3billion worth of grants that gave some of the poorer students an opportunity to attend higher education are being totally axed in favour of more loans. The confiscation of the means to better oneself through education is, in my opinion, more or less enforced peasanthood. There is absolutely nothing inferior about jobs that do not require degree education but the idea that poorer people should be denied choice and thus be withheld the opportunities to live fully-actualised authentic lives smacks of an enforced caste-like system.

But "what of making your own opportunities?", "What about the natural entrepreneurial spirit of humans?" and "what about taking responsibility for your own wealth?" I hear you cry. We live in a capitalist world after all and these three ideas are the cornerstone of a post-feudal civilisation. However, can it really be seen as realistic that without enough money to both "heat and eat", without access to higher education or with the subsequent crippling debts that attending unviversity creates, and without the means to carry out free work experience, that all British citizens are freely able to choose and create their own destinies? If not, then we do indeed have a vast underclass of socially immobile citizens. This, for all intents and purposes, is peasanthood and it is fitting that a government that reduces possibilities and opportunities for its people looks with misty eyes at the "British" values enshrined in the idea of the Magna Carta.

Just 150 odd years until our peasant's revolt then…