The Pathos of Politics (85-4) Political Systems continued 2


Military regimes are functionally equivalent to single-party rule, though led by a strongman and a crony clique for a ruling elite. Pakistan, Sudan, and Myanmar are exemplary military regimes.

Nations may at times undergo evolution from one regime form to another. Pakistan toys with a facsimile of democracy from time to time.

Changes in political systems are typically sparked by crisis, usually originating with governmental incompetence. In inadvertently loosening the reins of absolutism, King John I of England provided a historic example.

 Magna Carta

To all free men of our kingdom we have also granted, for us and our heirs forever, all the liberties written out below…. ~ Magna Carta (1215)

The Angevin Empire was a hegemony in the 12th and early 13th centuries, helmed (in succession) by 3 English kings before its dissolution. At its height, the domain extended from the British Isles down through a swath of western France to the Pyrenees.

Henry II was an energetic and ruthless ruler who established the Angevin Empire, driven by the desire to restore the lands held by his royal grandfather, Henry I.

Henry’s son Richard succeeded him in 1189, though only after much tumult. Richard I earned a reputation for fortitude in his military campaigns, and is one of the few English kings to be remembered by his epithet: Richard the Lionheart.

Unlike his predecessors, King John did not issue a general charter to his barons when he took the throne in 1199. It began his reign on the wrong foot, and he never recovered.

John lost most of his ancestral lands in France to French King Philip II in 1204. He struggled to regain them in the Anglo-French war, raising extensive taxes on his barons to finance the expensive folly.

By the time of his utter defeat in 1214, John was facing revolt by the nobility. He attempted to resolve the matter with a negotiated charter. Slogging through a sea of mutual distrust, the result was the 1215 Magna Carta (Latin for “great charter”).

In essence, the barons imposed their will on an unpopular king, who signed under duress. It only delayed what John feared most: rebellion.

Neither side complied with the document’s conditions. Compliance was never either’s intentions. Civil war ensued shortly thereafter.

John died shortly after bringing the 1st Baron’s War (1215–1216) to a stalemate, thanks in large part to dissension among the barony. This ill-starred, avaricious, naturally suspicious, and lustful man was not missed.

John’s successor – King Henry III – reissued a revised charter in 1225 in exchange for a grant of new taxes to finance his unsuccessful campaign to reclaim familial lands in France. The next king, Edward I, confirmed his charter as statutory law in 1297.

In being renewed by each monarch in turn, the regal charter became part of English political life; though as the fledgling English parliament passed new laws, charters increasingly lost their practical potency.

There was upsurge in interest in Magna Carta at the end of the 16th century. Liberal-minded legal scholars argued that the document was a foundation for individual freedoms, including habeas corpus: a recourse against unlawful imprisonment.

No free man shall be arrested or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way victimised, neither will we attack him or send anyone to attack him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land. ~ Magna Carta

This exaggerated account claimed that the Norman conquest of 1066 had overthrown these rights, and that Magna Carta had been a popular attempt at their restoration.

In actuality, the document’s granting of liberties had been confined to nobility. There had been no concern for the common man.

Fanning the historical distortion, jurists in the early 17th century relied upon Magna Carta to argue against the divine right of kings, which was propounded by the Stuart monarchs of Scotland.

The political myth of Magna Carta granting rights to ordinary folk persisted well into the 19th century. In 1787 it influenced Americans in drafting their constitution.

To this day, supreme court justices invoke Magna Carta as a talisman for their view of civil rights and liberties. SCOTUS has cited Magna Carta in more than 170 decisions. In a 2012 ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts opined that church liberties were unrestrained by the law, and thereby church officials could discriminate against their employees; a long-standing right established in Magna Carta, Roberts fantastically asserted.

Initiated via regal hubris, its import mythologized, the Magna Carta simply reflected a centuries-long transition away from absolutist monarchy. The English barons who brought King John to heel were looking for payback, not a new and enlightened constitutional order.