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Magna Carta Lecture by the Archbishop of Canterbury

Posted on 15/06/2012

The Archbishop of Canterbury visited Royal Holloway, University of London today to provide the eighth lecture in the annual Magna Carta Lecture Series. 

Marking the forthcoming 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, which took place in Runnymede in 1215, the Archbishop of Canterbury's lecture, Sovereignty, Democracy, Justice: elements of a good society?, considers the question of where good government finds its legitimacy.

Dr Rowan Williams explores the nature of democratic legitimacy; how this is shaped by the proper recognition of the role of law and how systems of representation can be fully accountable. He considers in particular the relationship between the proper democratic emphasis on the views of majorities and the need to safeguard the interests of minorities:

“ Legitimacy is usually used as a kind of shorthand answer to the question of what it is that justifies doing what government tells us, why government has a reasonable claim on our loyalty.  I shall be suggesting that if every complex society needs systems of representation, we have to come to terms with the fact that legitimacy is never a matter of electoral majorities alone.  Good, ‘legitimate’ government involves both direct election and mechanisms for representing (i) concerns that are of longer-term importance than electoral cycles allow, (ii) minority interests that can be silenced by large electoral majorities, (iii) groups with conscientious reservations about aspects of public policy, and (iv) the expertise of professional and civil society agents that will not necessarily be engaged in party political elections.”

Dr Williams argues that good government recognises the richness and variety of human society in its search for just and effective policy:

“…legitimacy has something to do with securing a general confidence that as many interests as possible are properly represented … it is about maintaining a climate in which interests can be argued about and negotiated – a climate in which there is a carefully nurtured atmosphere of public discussion, with all that implies in turn about freedom of speech.  A legitimate democratic polity is thus one in which no interest goes unchallenged, but equally no interest is denied a voice; which means that electoral majorities are bound to be only a part of what constitutes the legitimacy of a government and that not every governmental enactment has to be a reflection of majority opinion.  As has often been remarked, the abolition of the death penalty would probably not have happened when it did if the issue had been left to majority opinion in the UK.”

Considering the authority or ‘sovereignty’ that government has, the Archbishop notes that “‘sovereignty’ as a matter of who has the final procedural word in deciding the substantive content and application of the law is not quite the same thing as ‘sovereignty’ understood as an unfettered liberty to make any laws the sovereign may choose.”

He goes on to discuss the relationship between law and sovereignty and reflects on how, through the centuries, recognition of the rights people now have to live by their religious convictions has been intrinsically connected to broader recognition of freedom of conscience.


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