Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Taking Liberties

Historical memory has the marvellous ability to turn sordid, squalid, self-interested events into glamorous icons of human endeavour. The power of historical myth is often greater than the actuality, and nowhere is this more the case than with the Magna Carta. Or, in fact, with the whole of the British Library's very worthy 'Taking Liberties' exhibition.

Our well meaning, socialist guide brought us to Magna Carta with a sort of breathless awe. Here was the start of the English liberties we take so much for granted. Some fine quotes from the charter were hung prominently above the exhibit itself, as if to reassure us that this is where it all began. And yet, really, it didn't. Magna Carta was a straightforward bit of political haggling. The barons were fed up with paying for King John's pretty disastrous wars, and not much enamoured of the king himself. Cue military strife, which the barons win, and the drawing up of a document to guarantee baronial rights against the king. Not much liberty granting there. Actually, though, the Charter attains its magnificent symbolic power thanks to the unheralded efforts of the clerks who actually drew it up (King John and the barons not being terribly literate fellows). It was they who inserted a load of odd little rights that history has since discovered and assumed to be the basis of a great struggle for liberty. The King didn't notice. He never read it.

Then there's the picture that begins the exhibition, and round which we spent so much time pondering. It shows, pretty clearly, lots of police violence. Because that's how liberty's achieved, right? Challenging, often at physical cost, the thuggish forces of the oppressive ruling power. Er, no, not entirely. There were a few struggles in Britain, but they were relatively small scale, and many liberties came as a result of hard graft in parliament. And anyway, the picture is of a dispute in Ireland, so quite how it is meant to represent the typical British struggle for freedom us a little obscure. The Irish had more grievances against the English than you could count grains of sand on the shore of Bournemouth beach.

So it's a well meaning exhibition, and shows some fascinating documents, but in perpetuating the myth that the struggle for liberty is a titanic struggle of the altruistic many against the oppressive few, it's a little wide of the mark. The struggle for liberty has usually been because of the inexorable logic of self-interest. The barons wanting a share of power. The industrial middle classes wanting the vote to go with their wealth. And women gaining the vote because of their war work, not because of the suffragette agitation. Pragmatism rather than romanticism seems to have won through after all.

And by way of light relief, the visit to the War and Medicine exhibition was suitably clinical.

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