How England influenced global human rights

England has punched above its weight in influencing and shaping legal, civil and democratic rights for people and nations across the globe.

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King John (1157-1216) of England signs the Magna Carta at Runnymede near Windsor. PICTURE: GETTY IMAGES

We may be small, but from as early as the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, England, one of the four nations of the United Kingdom, has punched above its weight in influencing and shaping legal, civil and democratic rights for people and nations across the globe.

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Pictured is Lord Denning

Lord Denning, who was described by Margaret Thatcher as “probably the greatest English judge of modern times” considered the Magna Carta:

The greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.”

Trial by jury and the right to remain silent are both quintessentially English ideas, born in the Common Law of England. Today these rights form the cornerstone of around a third of the world’s legal systems, from India and Israel to Canada, Australia and the USA.

When Americans plead the fifth amendment - the right to remain silent -  they are invoking a right, enshrined in the US Constitution, which can be traced back directly to the English Common Law principle that “no person … shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself”.

English influence on civil rights is no less remarkable, from freedom from torture to freedom of speech and assembly.

England’s revolutions in the 17th century gave rise to the world’s first constitutional parliamentary government. England led Europe in showing that authoritarian government was not needed for a nation to become the richest and most powerful in the world.

In the same spirit, revolutionaries in the 18th century recast the future of America and France.

When the founding fathers of America set out to build a new and better country, it was England they looked to as their template – one of the Founding Fathers, George Mason, said they wanted to “claim nothing but the liberty and privileges of Englishmen”.

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John Trumbull's painting, Declaration of Independence (heavily influenced by English Common Law), depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress (Wikimedia Commons)

According to American academic, Robert Ferguson:

All our formative documents – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and the seminal decisions of the Supreme Court under John Marshall – were drafted by attorneys steeped in Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England. So much was this the case that the Commentaries rank second only to the Bible as a literary and intellectual influence on the history of American institutions."

English influence was also instrumental in shaping the continent of Europe, its laws, customs and rights. English legal and cultural traditions were at the heart of the European Convention of Human Rights, drafted by Conservative MP and English lawyer, David Maxwell Fyfe. The European Convention of Human Rights established the European Court of Human Rights which today underwrites the legal systems in many countries across Europe.

But England’s influence goes wider still. England’s Bill of Rights of 1688 underpins the rights of all human beings across the world, through the US Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

Today we celebrate England’s national day, St George’s Day, and the remarkable achievements of one small, outward-facing nation in building human rights and freedoms across the world from its rightful place, at the heart of it.

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