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A Medieval Historian Explains Why The Magna Carta Has Nothing To Do With COVID-19

Dominic Lipinski - WPA Pool/Getty Images

A deeply embarrassing Youtube video from ye olde Englande surfaced last week, and if you thought MAGA dorks chanting “STOP THE COUNT” was bad, wait until you’ve seen this. The video shows two polite Liverpool policemen speaking with an off-camera employee of a “soft-play area,” which I understand is essentially an indoor playground for children. The soft-play area is open and in-use, and the policemen are there because operating a soft-play area is a violation of that area’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Rather than immediately start in about the coronavirus being a hoax—he does get there eventually—the soft-play representative directs the policemen to a piece of paper taped to the business’s front door. The paper contains the text of Article 61 of Magna Carta Libertatum, a charter from 1215 which very briefly resolved specific conflicts between King John of England and a small group of barons. The owners and operators of this soft-play area, who notably are not barons, feel that Article 61 protects them from the government setting reasonable restrictions in order to manage a pandemic in the year 2020. An incredibly strange and deeply frustrating back-and-forth ensues. Here’s the video:

These soft-play types and their Magna Carta defense are not as uncommon as you might hope. Evidently it has never been all that strange to hear a Brit passionately citing the Magna Carta as a defense against the government uhh making rules and enforcing them. This isn’t even exclusive to Brits: Canada too is beset by the phenomenon of citizens swearing allegiance to British Lords in order to invoke rights and protections from this damn Article 61, and the nation of Canada didn’t even exist until several whole centuries after the Magna Carta was annulled. Did I mention it was annulled? It was annulled! One year after it was signed, the charter that contained Article 61 was annulled.

To help Defector sort out this craziness, I spoke with medieval historian Dr. Eleanor Janega, who teaches in the Department of International History at the London School of Economics. Dr. Janega did a very good and funny Twitter thread about goofs citing Magna Carta, and has thought long and hard about this bizarre phenomenon.

Dr. Janega spoke with Defector from London Thursday afternoon. We wound up talking about the Founding Fathers, sovereign citizens, and the futility of amassing an army of truthers and marching on Buckingham Palace. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

So, Magna Carta. I found an image of a copy of the original charter from something called the Cotton manuscripts, and it’s in Latin. I cannot make any sense of it at all because I do not know Latin. So, like, the first Magna Carta, back in 1215, what was that? What is it?

The Magna Carta story is, yes, the original document is from 1215. Basically, the reason that Magna Carta exists is that the king at the time was mad unpopular, people really didn’t like him. And at the time, also, relationships between nobility and royalty, specifically in England, were a little more tense than usual. In the medieval period generally, the nobles and kings hated each other. This is not particularized to England in any shape or form. There’s always a constant back-and-forth of power, because obviously nobility wants to be The Big Guy, and they don’t like kings coming in here and telling them what to do. And there’s all these questions about where power devolves and who controls things.

In England, at the time, things were even more up in the air, because of the Norman Conquest, which was a pretty recent development. The Norman Conquest happened in 1066. To us that’s like, “Oh, you know, 150 years or whatever, that’s a long time.” But it isn’t, really, when you’re trying to understand the nitty-gritty of how a society works. So by this point the Normans are rolling, they’re no longer seen necessarily as, like, invaders. At first everyone was like, “Who are these Normans? What’s going on? Why are they pushing us around?” But by 1215 everyone is like, “OK, we agree, we’re all English now (whatever that means).”

The king is trying to get a lot of taxes and so forth out of the various nobles. And the barons decide they don’t like it. There’s 25 barons in particular, and they kick off this thing that’s called the barons’ rebellion, and they kinda kick the king’s ass a little bit. The Archbishop of Canterbury is like, “Dude, we cannot have this, we can’t be having this. I’m gonna get you all together and we’re going to make a charter so that we can just get some concrete things in place. We can say who’s in charge of what and what that means. And we can just like, chill this out. Like, let’s please chill.”

And that’s what Magna Carta is. It’s a charter—that’s what “carta” means, Magna Carta technically means “great charter”—and it lays out the rules regarding what the barons control versus what the king controls, and what the king can reasonably ask of barons.

There’s a whole lot of talking about stuff like whether or not you can put fish weirs in a river. There’s tons of chat about fishing—very, very important. It’s a big fishing country! So there’s a lot about that. But a lot of it is just about taxation. A lot of it is about saying that the king has to go to court if he gets embroiled in stuff with the barons. He can’t just make summary judgments and stuff like that. And that’s all Magna Carta is: It’s an agreement between 25 guys and the king. That is 100 percent what it is, cut and dried. That’s it. It’s really boring. It’s not sexy at all.

It didn’t even stand for very long. A couple years later it was annulled by Pope Innocent III, who’s like, “What’s all this? You guys don’t really have authority to make these calls.” It got annulled, another war kicked off—The Baron’s War—and then a new version gets brought in, but the details of the charter are changed around a lot.

And, uhh, what is a baron? 

The nobility—I’m going to use some Game of Thrones references, that will be a better way of conceptualizing this.

That seems like a good idea.

I’m going to be so screwed when we get away from Game of Thrones references, I’m going to lose all of my references. But, so, the Starks are a noble house. Barons are comparable to governors in America, a baron is like the governor of your state. It’s hereditary, of course, it gets passed down. But the baron basically would control that area of land, a lot of the time they would control the courts within that system. There would be a higher, royal court, that would deal with royal things, but for the most part most people would go see their local nobles if there’s trouble with things. Barons collected taxes from the people who lived in their area. If they had serfs (there’s still a fair amount of serfs, here)—serfs were unfree people, they’re not quite slaves but they also couldn’t just leave, and they had to also work on the baron’s territory. So they’d come into the field and plow for the baron a couple times a year. The baron would also control the fishing weir, which was a big deal. They could do things like set up fairs, which are like trade fairs, where people would come in and the baron could get taxes from that. So basically, it’s sort of like if you think about governors, you know, there’s a president over all the governors but the governors are the local power. 

So it’s sort of like, what is a state’s prerogative versus what is a federal prerogative? I suppose I could just say that instead of making Game of Thrones references.

No, the Game of Thrones is good, it has dragons and sex and stuff.

Yeah! So, like, the Starks are barons.

And barons, would they have lived in big castles?

Yeah, so they’ll have castles and stuff. Here’s a fun bit of terminology: A “castle” is just a fortified big fancy house, but if a king lives in it then it’s a “palace.” A palace can be a castle if it’s fortified. It can be both a palace and a castle, but if it’s not royal, it can’t be a palace.

So if the king decided he wanted to move to the countryside, and he just took a baron’s castle, then it becomes a palace?

Right! But if a king did that it would all kick off. The barons would be like, “Absolutely not.”

What is a comparable modern-day quality-of-living gap to the gap between a 13th-century baron and someone who was not a baron?

Well, hmm, there were other layers of nobility, so like viscounts and marquesses and all these complicated levels of nobility.

OK, so more specifically, who is a baron, wealth-wise, compared to a Liverpudlian owner of a soft-play area?

A modern baron would be someone who, I suppose, over here would be a member of the House of Lords, or maybe a very wealthy CEO of some big corporation, who has a hereditary title (because most of the people in the House of Lords do have hereditary titles). And a medieval soft-play-area owner would be, like, a cheese-maker, or someone who runs a little cheese shop. And importantly, Magna Carta 100 percent refers only to those barons, and not at all to cheese shop-owners and other common people. 

Article 61, which was what the soft-play-area guy brought up, like, “Oh, I think you’ll find that Article 61 says…”—Article 61 is entirely procedural! All it does is say, like, if one of the barons is overseas and he can’t come to the council of 25 barons, they can get another baron to take his place. This has nothing to do with what the soft-play guy thinks it means! People seem to think it means that if you’re unjustly being asked to do something then it gives you some form of redress. But A) this wouldn’t even apply to you, and B) that’s not even what Article 61 says! It’s so dry.

An image of Magna Carta, from the British Library.
Dry? This wall of Latin text? Impossible.

One of the things about Magna Carta is though it did inspire other things, as the law stands now all but, like, three clauses have been revoked. And they are, again, purely procedural. It has nothing to do with rights, there is no concept of rights of the people. It’s a delineation of what rich guys own what, versus the other rich guys. It’s a rich guy–off. It does not apply to you and me. It’d be like, “Oh, billionaires have the right to walk their dogs on the side of a pond.” For the average person, this means absolutely nothing.

Would the 13th-century equivalent of a soft-play-area owner even have had what you or I would consider rights?

No. There wasn’t any real conception, even, of rights of the average person. There is a conception of divine right, but that’s something kings have, the reason that they’re the king is that God wanted them to be the king. I mean, there’s a lot of back-and-forth about the specific conception of rights among those with power. But for commoners, there’s no conception of rights at all, whatsoever. Now, rights could be granted to you, but they’re usually bestowed upon you. 

As an example, here in medieval England, Jewish people had specific rights that others did not, because they were invited into the country with the Normans, because, basically, a very, very long story about how it’s a sin in the medieval period for Christians to lend money to Christians. But Jewish people could lend money to Christians. So Jewish people were forced to be moneylenders. So they’re like, “Well, yeah, you can live here, but you can’t do anything other than lend money.” So when the Jewish people were invited in to be moneylenders here, they were given rights in a Jewish charter. So they’ve got a charter, and their set of rights. For example, they’re only beholden to the king, they always go to royal courts, and they basically only pay taxes to the king. They don’t have to pay taxes to, like, dukes and so forth. So actually, if you wanted to talk about a charter that is closer to giving common people rights, the Jewish charter would actually be a better example. It would be a better argument, if the Jewish owner of a soft-play area pointed to the Jewish charter as an example of rights of commoners. But it’s still an example of rights being bestowed by a king. There’s a subtle difference in the way that we think about it, because now we think about rights as inalienable, as something inherent. Whereas from the medieval point of view, no, someone gives you rights.

And in the case of a Jewish person operating with the Jewish charter, even there the rights are bound up with awful restrictions. Like, there could not be a Jewish soft-play-area owner.

No, right. Jewish people were confined to doing non-lending business exclusively with other Jewish people. And there were rules on the books about how Jewish people couldn’t eat with Christians, and so forth, the whole thing was hella antisemitic, it’s really terrible. Eventually, here in England, they actually kicked all the Jewish people out, because the crown was deeply in debt, in the 13th century they said, “You! Get out!” And the moneylenders were like, “Hey, you owe us all this money!” And the response was, “Yeah, that’s why you have to leave!”

So that was the other thing about medieval rights, is they were not inalienable. If the king is like, “no, I’m sorry, you’re gonna have to go,” that’s that.

When the pope annulled the original 1215 charter, was that because nobody was following it or what?

Well, there was a lot of stuff in there about religious duties, and the pope said the parties basically lacked the authority on that stuff. And the pope could do things like that. So it got 100 percent annulled, and then it came back in 1217. King John’s son takes over and makes another Magna Carta. And it’s still not treated with a lot of real authority, and is very murky. The pope couldn’t always meddle in affairs of state, but what would happen is if there’s enough religious jurisdiction, he could. And so, for example, since the Archbishop of Canterbury was involved, technically he should’ve run it by the pope. 

And then I read that it was customary for a while for each new monarch to recertify this thing? 

Right, so it would be the kind of thing where a new king would say, “Yes, I’m still doing this.” But this speaks to the concept of rights that only exist because a king says so.

Yeah, you have the “right” exactly to the point where a guy in a king hat says you no longer have that right.

Exactly. That would be completely within the realm of possibility. The king is probably not going to do that, because they don’t want to kick a hornet’s nest, but you do see that medieval kings tried this stuff all the time. Like, in 14th century Bohemia, the emperor Charles IV tries to consolidate a bunch of rights under the crown, and the nobility are like, “Absolutely not, are you joking?” It almost goes into open war. And so Charles, in order to save face, is like, “Oh, I don’t know, that document must’ve gotten lost in the mail.” This is not a uniquely English thing, nobles and the king hating each other, it’s just that this one happened to keep going for a while, because the nobility and the king especially hated each other.

Do you suppose they had Magna Carta truthers in the 13th century? Commoners who thought that the charter applied to them?

That’s a really interesting question! But, no. The short answer is no. Because in medieval society, stuff is really quite stratified. It was hammered into everyone what their specific place was, you know? But in the 14th century and the 15th century, that’s when people started getting the idea that maybe they are people, too? Post Black Death, people get a little bit more, like, “Hey, what’s this all about?” A little bit more money is flowing around, and you’ll see, there was a series of laws in the 14th century that are called sumptuary laws, where the nobility and royalty get really annoyed because commoners do have a lot more money and they start dressing a little too well. They’ll be wearing really nice dresses or they’ve got like, really nice pointy shoes on and then the nobility are like, “What the hell?” So they pass a bunch of laws that are like, “You are not allowed to dress like this. You wear a sack. We don’t want you going around getting ideas about your station.” They spend a lot of time making sure that commoners absolutely know that they’re commoners. Like, our idea that rights might apply to all people is really a modern conception, the idea that you would treat all people as people. To a medieval person, there’s people and then there’s people.

So there would not have been a propaganda campaign, comparable to the way tax cuts, for example, are aimed at like the wealthiest five percent of the population but are described as this great boon for everyone? 

No, no. In fact, when rights are granted to particular groups in medieval society, often there’s a very specific effort to make clear who benefits from the rights and who does not. So, for example, London is this weird outlier, right? In London, they get to elect their own mayor—and when I say that, I mean men with property get to elect the mayor. But, Londoners did have these specific rights just for living in London, and Londoners did not want anyone else to have these rights. Because like, those rights are what make them Londoners, what make them very fancy and very special. For medieval people, things are very much understood in the context of this hierarchy. So when you got rights, you did not want them to apply to other people, you wanted them to be exclusively yours. There would often be a lot of back-and-forth between what were called “burghers,” who lived in cities, and people who lived in the countryside, and a real differentiation as far as what that means. It’s how we wound up using the word “peasant” as an insult. All “peasant” meant was that you farmed, you lived in the countryside. Some peasants could be rich, they could have a really big farm and be making tons of money, but it really didn’t matter because of their place in the social hierarchy.

But let’s say the 13th-century equivalent of a soft-play-area owner tried to wave around Article 61 of the 1215 charter. Would they just chop his head off on the spot or what?

Yeah. They would just be like, “The fuck?” The way the legal system in the medieval period works is it’s usually about property. Crimes, the way that we think about, like, murder or stuff like that, obviously that’s a crime, but there’s no police force, there isn’t really a way of catching people. (There wasn’t that much murder, comparatively, because they’re very small communities, everybody knows everyone and, like, you’re gonna get caught.) They did do a lot of shaming. They’re big on shame, that’s a huge one. But, like, the thing that courts exist for is property disputes. That’s what the law is actually about, for the most part. 

So, like, what are you gonna do, go into court? A serf would have to go into one of these baronial courts, right? And hold up Magna Carta and be like, “I think you’ll see this applies to me!” And they would be like, “Is this a joke? Are you joking?” And they very well might chop your head off, you would be risking it. They might kill you, for being all highfalutin about it, just be like, “No, I think you’ll find: Absolutely not.”

Because it’s just for barons. And the barons definitely do have rights to do capital punishment. Sure. And a lot of times, when we do see a record of a capital punishment, the reason to do it was to make a big display. To remind everyone the king is powerful. They don’t catch people doing things very often, so when they do catch people they’re like, “Do you see what happens?”

Yeah, so a commoner waving around a document trying to enforce accountability on the actual king, that seems like the kind of thing that would end in a beheading specifically because it takes the form of revolt.

I mean, that would be an act of rebellion, essentially. You’re going against the social order, you’re going against what is considered to be the natural order of things. And Magna Carta all over the place says that it’s not for common people. So they’ll just be like, “Excuse me, are you a baron? Because I missed that part, where you were a baron.”

It just wouldn’t happen. You could try it out but at best they would think you were mad or something. 

But this was already a pretty persistent political myth by, like, the 16th century, right?

Yeah, because it kinda kicks off—when you start to see the first fomenting of rebellion here, in the Civil War, and with Catholic/Protestant tensions and things like that, you do see an attempt to say that Englishness has these particular characteristics which have allowed for rights. And in the 17th century, there’s an effort to say that there were early medieval English laws, from before the Normans came, that definitively laid out natural rights. And then the Normans came, and they were all foreign French, and they took those away, and so that must’ve been what the barons’ rebellion was all about. They were just trying to reassert, with Magna Carta, this long-lost set of natural rights, the natural rights of the English people.

This is kinda made possible in the 17th century because there are more conceptions about nationalism. For a lot of the medieval period, you don’t really get strong conceptions of nationhood, that kind of a thing. But for both the medieval and the early modern way of thinking, the thing that gives something gravity or seriousness is this historical line, you look for something back in history in order to prove that things have ever been so. And so there is this big 17th-century effort to say, “Oh, well, Magna Carta proves that there are all these rights,” but again, and one more time, it is only about 25 fucking barons! I can’t emphasize this enough: It was not talking about average people.

In a lot of ways the people that were leading the Civil War in England were still pretty high up in the social hierarchy. These are not plowmen. It’s still rich people fighting with rich people, and that kicks off over here. And then, the coup de grâce, in my opinion, is how it transmogrified via America. Because when the Americans are declaring their independence from England, they’re like, “Aha! See? Got you here. There’s this great tradition, Magna Carta. Sir, SIR, this says that there are rights, and that the king can’t walk all over us.” And you can see what they’re trying to do. They’re like, “You’re not even treating us like you should with Magna Carta. And there’s this document that says that.”

When you’re establishing, like, a paper trail, of course you’d want to do that. In the 18th century, in the era of revolutions, they definitely believe in the rights of men now, this whole idea that everyone is imbued with natural rights. What they’re doing is, they’re taking their little modern equal rights hat and like, trying to shove it back five centuries, and say, like, “You thought this too.” But of course they didn’t think that! That just wasn’t any part of the way they thought.

They don’t want it to seem like a modern idea, because it’s more convincing if it’s an ancient idea, as old as civilization itself, that was essentially suppressed by relatively recent bad guys. 

Right, by the terrors of the medieval period. There is this very specific part of the generalized modern historiography around the time of the Enlightenment, where people act like the medieval period was very bad (and it really was pretty awful) and, actually, what was good was Rome. Because I just love a slave empire. I just absolutely love an empire where 60 percent of the population was slaves. That’s the good stuff, and that’s what you wanted. And for obvious reasons, because that’s what America was doing, right? Oh no no no, we’re more like Rome, where a bunch of rich guys ponce around voting on things while a huge population of slaves toils out in the fields. And let’s not even talk about women. They’re doing a very similar thing to Rome, and so they want to negate any sort of hierarchy or framework that is held over from the medieval period, because they see it as illegitimate or representative of a time that was, like, snuffing out the True Light. So it suits them to say there was a natural order that preceded the Normans, a noble old English tradition of which they are a new iteration.

Americans did that, and then the British people are like, “Oh shit, really? Well, I’ll have some of that.” But we don’t have a constitution here, and one of the ways that people get around that is by pointing to Magna Carta. 

Is there just a void in people’s imaginations, where the lack of a formal constitution encourages certain maniacs to reach way back for some sort of codified set of fundamental principles, and arrive at Magna Carta?

Yes, exactly. I think we’ve hit the nail on the head, there. These people are absolutely certain, in the year of our Lord 2020, they are absolutely certain that there must be some documents somewhere the describe our rights. But we still live in a monarchy! We don’t have a constitution, but it’s kinda like that whole George W. Bush truthiness thing, it just feels like it must be true. They’re looking for their document, and oh, that must be Magna Carta.

Parliament even tweeted this out, when this whole thing was kicking off, they were like, “Well, it does enshrine the rights of the people in opposition to the king.” And I was like, “What the fuck are you talking about!” It does not! Like, even parliament is lying about what Magna Carta does, because they still want the story. The historiography of it is like, “Oh, yeah, the king can’t just come in here and walk all over you.” But the king 100 percent can come in here and walk all over you and there’s nothing you can do about it, and Magna Carta is not going to help. The king simply cannot go into 25 barons’ houses. You are not 25 barons!

The other thing that is at play here, I think, is the way that we tend to think about history. The way that we often teach history is as a story of great men doing great things. We tend to think history is populated by great men, so therefore I am a great man, and when I cast my mind back, I am a member of the nobility, I’m a king, and so forth. So, yes, that charter applies to me. But, honey, 90 percent of the European population were peasants in the medieval period, none of this has anything to do with you. You and your family were on a farm, plowing, and none of this applied to you.

It seems like people are applying the modern myth of meritocracy, which for the most part still shuts them out of power, but because they are upstanding and a landowner and so forth, they identify with medieval nobility, instead of like a guy who spends his entire life moving mud from one pile to another pile.

Right, and the notion that people can see your worth and your goodness and that it means anything is a very modern idea. Medieval people were not that way, it’s not how things worked, it’s just 100 percent not how they thought about things. There’s this time machine idea that if you go back in time people would be basically the same, but wearing armor or burlap, like going to Medieval Times for dinner. Like, no, bro, that is just not how things worked.

I mean, I get it. It is scary. Here we are in the middle of a pandemic, people are trying to grasp onto whatever they can. We have an absolute lack of leadership. It does seem quite scary when you’re told to close businesses and things like that. I think that’s one of the reasons why this is a little bit pernicious, that people are doing this sort of magical thinking, where if they just get this piece of paper and put Magna Carta in their window everything will be OK, or back to normal. First of all, it won’t. But it also distracts you from making the real effort that you’re gonna need within your community to keep your local businesses afloat.

Like, I am worried about my local pub, I assure you, I feel this. I am definitely worried about small businesses. But we don’t solve anything by putting a magic piece of paper in the window. The thing that we’re gonna have to do is organize and help each other out in meaningful ways. And, for what it’s worth, I was in my local pub the other night when they announced another round of furloughs and everyone was gonna get paid, and they were like, “Yay, another round of drinks for everyone!” Like, it’s bad, but it’s not quite so dire that we need Magna Carta.

It’s a little bit humiliating to think that this sort of magical thinking—Magna Carta truthering—may in fact be the origin story of the entire American concept of inalienable rights.

It’s interesting because definitely the founding fathers were Magna Carta truthers. And then we’ve sort of grandfathered that weirdness in, British people sort of borrowed it back from the U.S. Now they too want a document they can point to. And some of the stuff that people think is in the constitution is wild, let alone what they think is in an 800-year-old charter written in Latin. I get it. There’s something sort of endemic, it’s in the historiography, the way the founding fathers looked at Magna Carta in the same way that we look at the constitution, it’s very convoluted. The things do relate to each other, because the founding fathers explicitly said they did, and so I’m gonna have to take their word for it. But I’m telling you, they just didn’t understand what they were talking about. So, uhh, bless them, they were good at owning slaves and justifying it to themselves while writing the constitution, but they weren’t great at Latin.

Well and there’s an uncomfortable overlap there, where our modern appreciation of the U.S. constitution and Bill of Rights tends to ignore that they are similarly concerned with a very clearly delineated minority who hold all the relevant political power. But within a few centuries they were being held up as a sort of guiding light of human freedom.

Yeah, completely, and we amended the shit out of it in order to even get any of that. Magna Carta has been, like, “No, we’re getting rid of it, we’re getting rid of it, here are the last three remaining clauses, and they apply only to fishing.” There’s just no way to square this particular circle in such a way that it has anything to say to us.

But the legend of it is very big, when even parliament is tweeting out misinformation about it. Which is in their interest, because they are very much peddling this kind of British exceptionalism, especially now, in the Brexit period. There is this longing for a story about why Britain is different, and how it’s good for you, the common guy. I mean, I choose to live here, I’ve been here for over a decade now, I like it here! Like, I can’t leave pubs. But at the same time, there are some myths about the way things are running—like, uhh, you get that it’s a monarchy? Like, the queen is the head of the church, here? When the pope comes here he meets with the queen. You want Magna Carta to mean something to you, even if you can’t read it because it’s in Latin. You’re just convinced that natural rights must live in the spirit of the thing.

It seems like Magna Carta truthers share a deeply deranged misunderstanding of relatively obscure legal constructs with our own sovereign citizens. I read that we have as many as half-a-million sovereign citizen–types here, but do you feel like these things are roughly comparable?

I do think that the two things are kind of informed by each other. I think that we’re kind of looking at the American sovereign citizen thing and there is this particular kind of Americanization that we’ve pinched. Nigel Farage, for example, who led the Brexit party (which is now rebranding as a kind of anti-COVID party), sounds like they’re really pushing this sort of thing. They’ve seen how that sells really well to a particular segment of the population. There is a type of dude—there’s like very much a dude who, like, hates immigrants, loves a pint, simple lads. It’s really appealing to them to say that there’s like this Britishness, and it’s always the same things. So it’ll be like World War II nostalgia, that’s a big part of it; anti-Europeanness that sort of flows from that; and then now this calling out to Magna Carta as though it’s a constitution, and it is very much fed by what’s going on in America, they do see themselves as aligned with Trump. We’re even starting to get the anti-mask people, we fought it for a while, but they’re starting to come in. And it’s very much modeled on an American type. I would say we’re definitely cribbing notes off America, the American people. The British are simultaneously always decrying creeping Americanization here, while at the same time absolutely going in for it.

Weirdly, this American derangement is also bouncing off of Britain in depressing ways. I was reading that in Canada, there’s a phenomenon of people swearing allegiance to a British guy named Lord Craigmyle so that they can invoke rights under Magna Carta.

Oh wow, OK, I did not know about this.

Is this Craigmyle guy on that team? Is he on the nutjob team?

That’s really interesting. He would be on that team, it would be the same thing. It’s an interesting one because Canada is part of the commonwealth, and they do get their parliamentary system and stuff from here. And, I mean, the queen is on their money. So I can see where that might come from, but also the way the powers are devolved, it just wouldn’t work. Canadian parliament is completely sovereign. You could make a better argument if you were coming from Australia. In Australia there’s this guy, the Governor General, who is technically appointed by the queen, and can technically, technically stand down the Prime Minister, which I think may have happened in the 1970s? And actually, Australian parliament has a copy of Magna Carta!

Uh oh, Australia might be the next frontier of Magna Carta truthering.

It’s definitely that. And Australians would have a better shot at this, I guess. But Canadians have completely divested themselves of that, and the structure. So it wouldn’t work anywhere, but it especially would not work in Canada.

[a big sigh]

The way that we think about laws and precedence, it’s like, “Where is the initial law? How many layers can I dig down to prove that I’m right?” And the problem is your bedrock doesn’t care about you. You’re not written into this thing. The U.S. Constitution was actually amended to say that members of what was once a slave class are now considered whole people. There are no amendments to Magna Carta, other than to strike things off. So if you look at it, baby, it does not talk about you! You’re not one of those 25 barons! Even if Article 61 was still a thing, you still would have to have been appointed by the other 24 barons because someone was out of the country.

But this Craigmyle guy, he’s got all this documentary evidence of people swearing allegiance to him. Do you think he could draft those people into military service under his flag and storm Buckingham Palace?

[a long pause]

I don’t … technically, I don’t think the Lords any longer have their own military forces? All of this is, like, yes we have a queen, but also we have a fucking government now. This is another interesting thing because within Magna Carta is all specifically talking about recourse to the kingdom, but that no longer exists on a governmental level. Our government and our crown are no longer the same thing, and there’s a very long legal history of that. So it wouldn’t matter anyway, because you can’t just go around having an army anymore. Sure, technically it’s the queen’s army or whatever, but she doesn’t raise the army, she’s not out there parading the troops around. The dukes and the barons and so forth are not out there with militias and personal armies that they can join up with the queen’s. Like, no.

So if Lord Craigmyle mustered up this truther army and conquered Buckingham Palace, I guess that wouldn’t accomplish too much.

Yeah, like, with who? Bro, we have a nuke. We’ve got a submarine in the harbor. Like, bro, it’s just not gonna happen.

Do you think a constitution is in the foreseeable future for Britain? 

That’s a great question. It would be nice if it was, but I’m not necessarily sure that there is enough public will for it. Because in the first place I think a lot of people are not aware that we don’t have a constitution. You know, people are going around being like, “Oh, Magna Carta this and my rights that.” So they already think we’ve got one.

There would have to be some form of political will in order to do that. And the trouble is, at the moment, our government is very nostalgia-based. They are really having to thread the needle between ideas of nostalgia and conceptions of authority, like centralized authority. Bringing in something like a constitution, you would get people who would push back a little and be all like, “Oh, well, it has always been good enough for me, why don’t you love the queen?” And it would kick off around that. You would have to really put together a bunch of people for whom this was paramount, and currently our government is much more interested in, like, spying on us. There’s no political will. Because they really want to keep allowing cops to pretend that they’re protesters and have sex with us. That’s what they’re all about, that’s what our government is doing right now. There’s nothing in it for them currently, but, I mean, it might happen within our lifetime? It’s gonna take a minute. It’s gonna take a minute.

Sorry, I’m being annoying, but: America provides some evidence, based on a person’s view, that having a formal constitution may not be all it’s cracked up to be. It does require an enormous amount of political will in order to amend the thing, and it seems like amending it becomes a more remote possibility over time. Is a system based on customs and Acts of Parliament necessarily any less flexible than one based on formal, codified rights?

I see what you’re saying. In terms of customary law—which is a huge part of medieval law—you know that this is how we’ve always done things. To a certain extent that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Customary law here in the UK has some really wonderful things. For example, public right-of-way. If you go to the countryside here, there will be little signs that indicate you can walk across a certain field. Though someone privately owns that field, there’s been a right-of-way there dating back the 13th century or whatever, and you can’t just close a right-of-way, people have a customary right to walk on it. There are these nice little bits of customary law that do benefit the average person. I really like right-of-way, I think that’s really great.

And things like that can be reinterpreted over time. That’s where a lot of legal thinking generally is, so there is some room to maneuver there. But that is a difficult one, because the conception of rights is very new. We’re still sort of learning what it means for everyone to have rights, and how they are apportioned, and we still have a very stratified society in a lot of ways. We’re still seeing how that whole development works with customary laws, which are traced back to times before our modern conception of rights.

Ideally, I would like to have a constitution here. Possibly I’m biased because I’m originally American, and I’m like, “You should get one of those.”

Well at least if you get a Constitution you can make sure to neutralize this Lord Craigmyle guy before he musters up his Canadian army and conquers the entire nation. 

I’m definitely going to look into that. Maybe it’s more like the BTS Army.