The Law is a Living Thing

The influence of Magna Carta on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was acknowledged by Eleanor Roosevelt, when she described it as the International Magna Carta. While the UDHR defines the rights, The European Convention, as an international treaty under which signatories agree to be bound by its’ requirements was a natural successor to Magna Carta, so it seemed right to commemorate the two – the ancient and modern side by side.

In the week of the anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, Sue Casson looks at the relationship between the Great Charter and the European Convention on Human Rights as she continues her series exploring how her song cycle Dreams of Peace & Freedom developed. 

The subtle, pared down sound of Dreams of Peace & Freedom that by necessity defined our Edinburgh Fringe performances in 2014, made the idea of a pop-up tour to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the signing of the European Convention on Human Rights the following year more possible, as with a narrator and three singers, one of whom doubles on piano, we could, and did, turn up to sing in as many places with connections to Magna Carta as we could, with very little fuss.

Hold on – Magna Carta? That’s something quite different, surely? But in fact, it was just this happy coincidence that prompted our big idea that 2015 was a Big Year for Freedom

Magna Carta

Magna Carta Libertatum (to give it its’ full name – the Great Charter of Liberties) historically enshrined natural rights and freedoms into British law for the first time. It offered access to swift justice, outlawed illegal imprisonment, limited feudal payments to the king and protected the rights of the church. It has been described as the

foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.

Lord Denning (1899 – 1999)

The influence of Magna Carta on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was acknowledged by Eleanor Roosevelt, when she described it as the International Magna Carta. While the UDHR defines the rights, The European Convention, as an international treaty under which signatories agree to be bound by its’ requirements was a natural successor to Magna Carta, so it seemed right to commemorate the two – the ancient and modern side by side.

65 years since the signing of the ECHR and 800 years since King John signed the Magna Carta

When we laid out our plans for our Big Year for Freedom, we were only vaguely aware of the British government’s decision to make major changes to the Human Rights Act, which incorporates the ECHR. But as the year progressed, what had seemed a historic commemoration gradually took on the guise of political activism.

David Maxwell Fyfe provided a link between Magna Carta and the ECHR. In his speech to The American Bar Association as they unveiled their monument in Runnymede in 1957, he laid out his belief in natural law – law derived from nature or ethical reason, that exists independently of a given political order, that is at the heart of the great Charter. Just as Magna Carta protected rights that existed beyond the King’s jurisdiction, so the European Convention, which Fyfe was instrumental in drafting, provided recourse for citizens beyond the nation state, who believed their human rights were infringed.

We highlighted this when we opened our Edinburgh show with a musical setting of some of the closing lines from Magna Carta translated from the original Latin, sung alongside excerpts from this speech. There are Waters, which closed the show, was accompanied by a draft list of all the fundamental freedoms that made up the European Convention.

However, during our tour, an explicit parallel between the Magna Carta and the modern International Magna Carta, seemed missing from the song cycle. Tom laid down the gauntlet of finding a way to musically mesh the two – by somehow fusing David Maxwell Fyfe’s suggested preamble to the European Convention which he had recently discovered online, with my musical setting of Magna Carta, to make the association between the two musically clear. I came up with the idea of a descant and The International Magna Carta became the grand finale of Dreams of Peace & Freedom.

Now David Maxwell Fyfe’s personal story, and his journey from Nuremberg to Strasbourg, was encased between two great Charters, and the activism, to preserve the rights enshrined within them has become another strand to our story. When Cultural Solidarity Media, as part of a documentary of the Nuremberg Trials for Russia 1,  came to film Dreams of Peace & Freedom in June 2016, we used the film they gave us of our performance of The International Magna Carta for our pro-Remain campaign during the lead up to the referendum. 2015 was the moment our commemoration became a campaign.

Find out more about our Big Year for Freedom tour at www.kilmuirpapers.org.

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