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.
At first glance, the Commons deciding to maintain the status quo on a 19th Century law seems like a highly conservative thing to do. But in reality, yesterday’s vote to reject giving prisoners the vote was nothing short of a revolutionary act. This is the first time that I can remember that British politicians have chosen to openly defy a European authority.
Of course, the usual suspects have trotted out to say that the European Convention of Human Rights and the court that enforces it has nothing to do with the EU, but this is garbage in two respects. First, obedience to the ECHR is a membership requirement of the European Union – they are so closely entwined as to be arms of the same creature. Second, and arguably more importantly, the public perception is that there is little difference between the two.
Any Europhile who finds comfort in an artificial distinction between the two is deluding themselves if they think yesterday wasn’t a victory for eurosceptics over the European project. If the eurosceptic movement builds on this episode in the right way and learns the right lesson, then this could become the first of many victories.
What is the lesson that must be learned? It is this: retail politics beats theoretical politics every time.
The ECHR ruling that Britain should be forced to give prisoners the vote split the debate into two sides. On one side were the eurosceptics, who built an alliance of common sense around themselves to say to the public “We oppose giving the vote to criminals”. On the other side were a rump of euro-enthusiasts and self-proclaimed penal reformers speaking legalese about charters and stuck in the awkward position of trying to promote the empowerment of muggers and burglars. The outcome was pretty clear for a long time.
We must fight the EU on battlefields of our choosing, where we have the high ground and they have the sun in their eyes. We must pick issues that affect the real lives of millions of voters, that are easily communicated and where we are obviously in the right.
By definition, that means resisting and rejecting the temptation to indulge in high-falutin’ geeky technicalities or poe-faced philosophy.
Of course our campaign should be underpinned by a strong structure of principle and theory, but we must take a retail approach to selling our ideas to the people and the media – not betraying our principles but promoting them.
For example, a couple of years ago I was involved in a series of focus groups to test different messages and issues on the EU. In one exercise, every group was given a bit of paper with the word “Sovereignty” on it and asked to write down what the idea meant to them. Every single time, without fail, the sheets came back filled not with words about self-determination, democratic deficits and unaccountable EU commissioners, but with things about the royal family.
We asked the same groups about what the Government should do in response to votes for prisoners, and they unanimously said we should tell the Court where they could stick their ruling and we should do what want in our own country. It’s not that people don’t care about sovereignty, but they simply don’t engage much with overly complex technical language. Give people a practical example and they are big fans of self-determination.
Tony Hancock summed this up sublimely when he proclaimed “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?” At the time that was funny because most people knew what Magna Carta was – now Hancock’s line is a cautionary message to anyone who would focus their messaging highbrow rather than real life. If you aim your campaign at the intelligentsia, they may back you to a man but you will likely lose.
The EU is bad for this country because of the democratic deficit, its protectionist economics, its commitment to corpus juris and its statist philosophy – but it will fall because it messes with peoples bin collections, it closes their post office, it bans their normal lightbulbs or because it gives a burglar the vote.