The Magna Carta, hailed as the cornerstone of parliamentary democracy, inspired legends like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela for liberty to their lands and people, Prime Minister David Cameron said on Monday as Britain marked the historic charter's 800th anniversary.
The United Kingdom’s royalty converged at the famous meadow Runnymede, where King John had met disgruntled barons and agreed to a list of basic rights on June 15, 1215, under which the foundations of parliamentary democracy, human rights and the supremacy of the law over the crown were first enshrined.
However, the human rights the historic charter helped shape are at the centre of a modern political feud in the UK, with Cameron seeking to overhaul the rights laws and reduce the influence of Europe using the document's reference.
Queen Elizabeth II joined the British premier to commemorate the sealing of Magna Carta, the Latin for ‘Great Charter’ that was also an inspiration for the US Constitution.
Thousands had gathered at the riverside meadow, near Windson, Berkshire, for the commemoration.
Speaking on the occasion, Cameron said, “Magna Carta went on to change the world and inspired everyone from women's suffrage campaigners to Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Think of India, of Gandhi, when he brought more rights to his people overseas. With his Indian Relief Act he declared he had something special: the 'Magna Carta of our liberty in this land'.”
“Think of South Africa -- of that courtroom in Rivonia. As Nelson Mandela stood in the dock, looking at a lifetime in prison, it was Magna Carta that he cited,” he added.
The charter established the principle that the king was subject to the law, rather than above it, and stipulated that “no free man shall be seized or imprisoned... except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.”
Cameron said it was modern Britons' duty to safeguard the charter's “momentous achievement.”
Cameron's government is seeking to replace the Human Rights Act -- the supreme arbiter for which is a European court -- with a British Bill of Rights, a move opponents fear could weaken key protections.
In a veiled reference to the European human rights act, he went on to add: “Magna Carta takes on further relevance today. For centuries, it has been quoted to help promote human rights and alleviate suffering all around the world.”
“But here in Britain, ironically, the place where those ideas were first set out, the good name of 'human rights' has sometimes become distorted and devalued,” he said in an apparent reference to the current political debates.
He added: “It falls to us in this generation to restore the reputation of those rights – and their critical underpinning of our legal system.”
Cameron told the audience Magna Carta would “alter forever the balance of power between the governed and the government”.
He added the document had inspired different generations and countries across the world.
Cameron said: “Why do people set such store by Magna Carta? Because they look to history. They see how the great charter shaped the world, for the best part of a millennium, helping to promote arguments for justice and for freedom.”
The premier's speech drew criticism from opponents to the proposed overhaul in the rights system.
Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty rights group said, “Cameron could give a master class in bare-faced cheek, using Magna Carta day to denigrate our Human Rights Act.”
US Attorney General Loretta Lynch was also present during the celebrations in which spectators turned out in large numbers. Musical and spoken word performances were staged ahead of a formal ceremony.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said the document “set the bar high for all of us today.”
A replica of the Great Charter began its journey down the ThamesRiver on Saturday on board the Royal Barge Gloriana leading a flotilla of 200 boats as part of events to mark its 800th anniversary.
Four copies of the charter survive, two in the British Library and one each in Lincoln and Salisbury cathedrals.