Today’s news of David Cameron’s trouble remembering what Magna Carta means on theLetterman Show inevitably recalls Tony Hancock’s classic “Twelve Angry Men” episode of Hancock’s Half Hour:
With the immortal words:
Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?
Hancock reduced the audience to gales of laughter, and secured yet another entry in the annals of comedy history.
And yet, there’s also something rather sad about that clip, echoing down from 1959. If a prime time comedy show made that gag today, how many people in the audience would laugh and how many would be left scratching their heads over what it meant?
If you go to Runnymede, where Magna Carta was signed – laying the foundation stone of English freedom – you will find a memorial. Its inscription reads
“To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of Freedom Under Law”
But it was not erected by the British public, or by our Parliamentarians, or our legal institutions. It was put there by the American Bar Association who, it seems, value Magna Carta more than we do.
Perhaps Hancock was right – Magna Carta means nothing to us. She died in vain.