HL Deb 16 June 1976 vol 371 cc1367-72WA

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What speeches were made by the Lord Chancellor and The Speaker of the House of Representatives at the presentation of Magna Carta in the United States Capitol on 3rd June 1976.

The LORD PRIVY SEAL (Lord Shepherd)

A British Parliamentary delegation, led by the Lord Chancellor and Mr. Speaker, visited the United States from 31st May to 4th June 1976 to mark the Bicentennial of the United States of America, in accordance with the Resolutions of both Houses on 17th July 1975. The delegation, on behalf of Parliament, presented to Congress, as representatives of the American people, one of the original copies of Magna Carta dated 1215 A.D., on loan for one year, with a gold showcase and replica of Magna Carta as a permanent gift. In view of the great Parliamentary significance of the occasion and its unique character, it is appropriate to set out in full the speeches made at the presentation ceremony on 3rd June, as recorded in theCongressional Record of the Senate. They are as follows:

Speech by The Lord Chancellor, Lord Elwyn-Jones:

It is my honour and pleasure first to bring to this great Assembly of representatives of the American people the greetings and abundant good wishes of my fellow Parliamentarians and of the people of the United Kingdom.

It was our privilege to welcome you, Mr. Speaker, and your distinguished Delegation to Westminster Hall last week, the historic centre from which the system of Common Law was taken to every quarter of the globe. It is now our privilege to be received at the very heart of your Congress, the Rotunda.

On behalf of my colleagues and myself, I would like to thank you for the warmth of your hospitality. On this historic occasion your generosity has extended to permitting Mr. Speaker Thomas and myself to appear before you in the full bottomed wig, which has been traditionally worn by our predecessors for the past 200 years. We have ventured to do so, despite the firm resolution of our fellow Welshman, Thomas Jefferson, that English judicial wigs should not on any account be worn in these United States. As for our robes, I can only repeat the assurance of a certain English clergyman, who betook himself two centuries ago to a village in my native Wales called Carrigy Druidion—Druid's Stories. The clergyman appeared in such unfamiliar garments that upon the sight of him " a general roar of laughter shook the village ". But he was not abashed. His response was to say: " Gentlemen, you may consider us as ridiculous as you please, but I do assure you that at home we pass for decent men ". I hope our colleagues from Westminster will be willing to give you the same assurance about Mr. Speaker Thomas and myself.

One of the great precepts of friendship is " rejoice with those who do rejoice and weep with those that do weep ". Our peoples have been borne together by the sorrows of two World Wars. Now we rejoice that we can share your Bicentennial celebrations. Peoples not familiar with our ways have thought it paradoxical for the British to be joining in the celebration of the Bicentenary of what was, after all, the loss of the American colonies. They overlook our traditions of compromise. We now regard the events of two centuries ago as a victory for the English-speaking world.

In truth there is much to celebrate in this Bicentennial Year.

There is the enduring relationship between our two countries which overcame the severance of political links between us two centuries ago. Only six years after the Declaration of Independence King George III expressed the hope to the Parliament of his day that " Religion, language, interests, affection may prove a bond of permanent union between the two countries ". And so it was to be. For two centuries now we have been linked by those bonds, Fundamental among our common values is the principle of the rule of law, expressed in the words of your President John Adams and incorporated in the Declaration of Rights—" a government of laws and not of men ". This principle, which is basic to any free society, found one of its earliest written expressions in King John's Great Charter of 1215. Beginning as an affirmation of the privileges of the dominant classes of feudal society, it gradually became a charter of liberty for all men. It became a fundamental law against which all other laws and executive acts should be tested. The famous clauses 39 and 40 ring down the centuries: " no free man shall be proceeded against, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. To no-one will we sell, and no-one deny or delay, right or justice ". For centuries Magna Carta lay dormant. I don't think Shakespeare ever mentioned it, even in his play King John. But its finest hour was to come. The Common Lawyers of the seventeenth century used it as a powerful weapon against the absolutist claims of the Stuart Monarchy, for its main theme was that government governs under the law and is itself subject to law. " Magna Carta ", thundered Lord Chief Justice Coke, " is such a fellow that he will have no sovereign ".

It was a formidable weapon for use at that critical time in Parliament's history. " We are the last monarchy in Christendom that retain our original rights and constitutions " said one English MP in the 1620s. Unless they insisted on their rights, said another, " then farewell Parliaments and farewell England ". Fifteen years later, the English Parliament was able to challenge the King and defeat him in civil war. Parliamentary sovereignty was assured. In that very time the English settlers were going across the sea to the New World, taking the message of Magna Carta and the substance and spirit of the Common Law with them, with its insistence on individual rights and its repudiation of arbitrary power in any form. They took it to Virginia in 1607, and Massachusetts in 1620, and Maryland in 1632, and Rhode Island in 1636. And when the testing time came in the 1770s it was on the principles of Magna Carta that John Adams based his first appeal to the colonists. As streams join and make a mighty river, so have our Magna Carta and Bill of Rights and your Declaration of Independence and Constitution mingled to form a common heritage and tradition which has served as an inspiration to both our countries. We can together therefore repeat the familiar lines of Rudyard Kipling: " All we have of freedom, all we need to know; This our fathers won for us long and long ago ".

We in Britain recognise, in this Bicentennial Year, the achievements of your great nation, whose institutions, whose air of freedom, whose enterprise, idealism and courage have gained our admiration and respect. The leadership of the free world rests on the shoulders of a powerful and generous people. Your recovery from the tribulations of recent years has especially impressed us. Both at home and abroad, you have been beset by circumstances and adversities which appeared to shatter your confidence and to threaten the principles on which depends the smooth running of a great democracy; circumstances which might have broken a less resilient people. But now it is evident to all your friends that your strength is untouched and your resolution firm. Above all, your Constitution has proved its soundness and its vitality.

Britain, too, has had her serious problems. But we British are also a resilient people. I shall never forget my emotion when, at the Nuremburg Trials in 1944, I handled the text of Hitler's Operation Sea Lion, prepared for the invasion of Britain in the summer of 1940. The first paragraph reads " Although the British military situation is hopeless, they do not show the least sign of giving in ". With your help we survived that threat. We shall once again resolve the problems that now face us; and, in partnership with you, will continue to stand for the freedom which our heritage has bequeathed to us.

We have accordingly thought it fitting—and you have graciously agreed—that Magna Carta should be selected as the focal point of the participation of our Parliament in your Bicentennial celebrations.

The copy of Magna Carta which we hand over today to your care is the best of the four surviving originals of the 1215 version. At the wish of Her Majesty The Queen and on behalf of the Members of both Houses of Parliament, it is my honour to present to you this show case and to ask you to accept into the safe keeping of Congress, for the Bicentennial Year, the Magna Carta. May we continue to respect and defend the principles which it symbolises and may the friendship between our countries and our peoples long endure.

Speech by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. Speaker Albert:

We meet here today to complete what was begun in such warm good will ten days ago. The Members of Parliament of the United Kingdom welcomed my colleagues and me then at Westminster Hall, the most historic structure in Britain.

It is now my pleasure to return their hospitable greeting here in the Great Rotunda of the Capitol, one of the most historic places in our own United States.

By our action today, we add a new chapter to the story of the Rotunda. From this time forward, the attention of each visitor will be drawn to this spot.

Here, he will he told, w ill rest in honor, for one year, one of the four existing copies of Magna Carta. In addition, this magnificent gold and silver showcase, designed by Louis Osman, will house a gold-engraved replica of Magna Carta, which will be on permanent display in the Great Rotunda.

To me, what we do here today will be the most significant part of our Bicentennial celebration, because it means that our Capitol will house, out of the generosity of the British Parliament, the most important single political document in the long history of the English-speaking nations.

Let me express, on behalf of the Congress and all the citizens of the United States, our heartfelt gratitude to our English-speaking brother parliamentarians from across the ocean.

We commemorate this year the sundering of constitutional bonds between our two Nations. But throughout the past two centuries, there has been more to unite us than to pull us apart—common history, common language, literature and culture, a common devotion to the ideals of freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the priceless freedom to worship the way we choose, unhindered by the hand of government.

Nothing better symbolizes the strength of those bonds than Magna Carta. It was the first expression of the idea of liberty under law and limitation of arbitrary powers of government.

One of the most momentous of our experiences in England last week was a visit to Runnymede. On those plains, more than 700 years ago, the Barons gathered to make their demands upon King John. Out of that confrontation came Magna Carta, symbol of liberty and the rule of law.

Since 1215, the idea of the rights and liberties of Englishmen have undergone a continuous process of growth and transformation over the ensuing centuries, culminating in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

A century later and an ocean away, Thomas Jefferson would draw on those precedents and traditions to draft the Declaration of Independence.

Cynics have stated: Nations have no permanent friends, only permanent interests. What we say and do here today disproves that assertion. Our special relationship transcends time and distance and the changing conditions of our world.

It has been, and remains, the world's finest example of a partnership between peoples, forged from a lasting commonalty of traditions and goals rather than a fleeting one of selfish interests.

I salute this friendship. I salute the generosity of the British peoples, their sovereign and their government. I thank them for giving Americans the opportunity to view, during the coming year, an original copy of Magna Carta and the superb replica and the showcase of gold, silver and enamel that will find their permanent home here.

It was Edmund Burke who observed that, " people will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors."

It is in this spirit that we pay tribute today, not only to Washington and Jefferson, but also to the Barons of Runnymede. That which our ancestors have bequeathed, we must earn and earn again.

Only thus, will we be able to maintain that spirit of liberty which, more than any other, has characterized English-speaking peoples.

House adjourned at nineteen minutes past eight o'clock.