King John signs Magna Carta - even as a fairy story, it has political impact

Cameron has betrayed every principle he mentions in his Magna Carta speech

Cameron has betrayed every principle he mentions in his Magna Carta speech

There are some political speeches which are so brazenly hypocritical you have to presume they're doing it on purpose. David Cameron's Magna Carta speech today is firmly in that category. In a short statement, the prime minister will reel off accomplishments which he himself has done his best to destroy during his time in government. It is a quite staggering moment of insincerity.

"Eight hundred years ago, on this day, King John put his seal to a document that would change the world," the prime minister starts. "We talk about the 'law of the land' and this is the very land where that law – and the rights that flow from it – took root."

He then lists what the law of the land entails:

"The limits of executive power, guaranteed access to justice, the belief that there should be something called the rule of law, that there shouldn't be imprisonment without trial. Magna Carta introduced the idea that we should write these things down and live by them. That might sound like a small thing to us today. But back then, it was revolutionary, altering forever the balance of power between the governed and the government. All over the world, people are still struggling to live by the rule of law and to see their governments subject to that law."

The fascinating thing about Cameron's list is that he has acted against the principle of every single example on it.

"The limits of executive power"

One of the key features of Cameron's time in power has been to expand executive power and limit the number of defences citizens have against it. Chief among these is the attempt to repeal the Human Rights Act and possibly pull Britain out of the European Convention of Human Rights altogether.

There are few initiatives which offer a more concrete, civilising check on executive power than this convention. It protects our lives, our privacy, our free expression and our right to a fair trial. It protected people who had been effectively tortured by the British army when Callaghan was prime minister. It protected gays in Northern Ireland against the criminalisation of their sexuality when Thatcher was prime minister. It protected people who had been convicted of no crime from being put on the DNA database when Blair was prime minister.

And now that Cameron is prime minister he intends to scrap the Human Rights Act, which allows people to pursue their human rights case in the UK, and possibly pull out the convention altogether, thereby dismantling one of the greatest international British achievements of modern history, putting the world's human rights framework at risk, and taking away Brits' protections against the state and private companies.

"Guaranteed access to justice"

Equal access to law is the third leg of Britain's welfare state. Legal aid is there to make sure people of modest means are properly represented when they face legal problems. But it has been rolled back by successive governments – first by Labour, then more dramatically by the Tories.

The economic disincentives to solicitors doing legal aid work are now so severe they threaten to create legal deserts where people have no access to their help. The number of accredited legal firms is expected to drop from 1,600 to less than 400. Large private contractors like G4S will likely take over, potentially leaving the same firm defending you, imprisoning you and then handling your probation when you get out.

Legal aid has been completely removed from private family law, personal injury, clinical negligence, employment and education law, non-detained immigration cases and many areas of debt, housing and benefit law. Children are left to fend for themselves in legal disputes over immigration, housing or education. A case involving Cameron's own brother was thrown out because legal aid cuts meant the defendants no longer had a right to fair justice.

There is no guaranteed access to justice. The poor are being left defenceless against the legal might of those with money and expertise.

"The belief that there should be something called the rule of law"

Cameron's government has launched a sustained assault against the protections citizens enjoy against the state and other public bodies, leaving those in power enjoying considerably more protection than the people they exercise it over. One of the chief ways this was achieved was by attacking judicial review, a legal mechanism which allows the public to challenge government decisions.

Costs were front-loaded, cases reconstructed to maximise the cost to the person fighting them, judges had their powers of decision-making overruled from Whitehall and alternative funding sources – for instance from charities or sympathetic family members – were made next-to-impossible. For those without funds, justice has been made much harder to secure. Unless they are rich, of course. Under a Cameron government, the rich are always exempt.

And even with the so-called reforms passed, the government is tightening up judicial review across the board. Earlier this month education secretary Nick Morgan said she intended to strip parents of the power to judicially review whether their child's school is turning into an academy. Wherever citizen power is to be found, the Conservatives move to revoke it.

"There shouldn't be imprisonment without trial"

At any given moment, somewhere between 2,000 and 3,500 people are imprisoned without trial in the UK. They have committed no crime. They are not told when they will be released. Sometimes they are kept for years. Sometimes they are released, only to be suddenly imprisoned once again.

These are the victims of Britain's immigration detention system, one of the largest in Europe. It is not much discussed, partly because its existence contradicts the pretty stories we tell ourselves about our national character. But for the people inside, it is very real. At the election, the Liberal Democrats and Labour agreed to at least put in place a 28-day time limit to how long people can be kept in detention. The Tories refused.

So on every single one of his four categories, Cameron has actively attempted to dismantle the principles which he today celebrates.

There is a debate among legal minds about the relevance of Magna Carta, with some saying it is a pretty fairy tale, celebrated precisely because it offers no concrete legal protections. I never found that very convincing. Magna Carta is part of a national story, regardless of truth, and the role of narrative and national identity in people's heads offers a strong motivational basis upon which to make fairy stories come true. But Cameron's speech today is so brazen in its hypocrisy, so utterly contradicted by his own actions as prime minister, that it lends that theory considerable strength. He should not be able to make this speech for the noise of people laughing at him. And yet he can.

The prime minister has done his best to dismantle that which he claims to admire. The legal protections this country offers were fought for and secured against the powerful. It is quite clear which side he would have been on.