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‘Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?’



So said Tony Hancock (who would have turned 90 today) in 1959’s 12 Angry Men, a brilliant spoof of Henry Fonda’s 1957 film of the same name. Magna Carta, King John’s grudging attempt to appease rebellious barons and clergy, celebrates its 800th anniversary in 2015.

This article originally appeared in Blue & Green Tomorrow’s Guide to Sustainable Democracy 2014.

Magna Carta is seen as an historically significant document that enshrined liberty under the law and laid the groundwork for subsequent great constitutional documents. These include its own reissues in 1216, 1217, 1225 and 1297 (the last as statute), as well as the UK’s Habeas Corpus Act (1679), the Petition of Right (1628), the Bill of Rights (1689), the Act of Settlement (1701), the US Constitution (1789) and UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights (1948).

Lord Denning, the late, great master of the rolls (the second most senior judge in England and Wales) described it as “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”.

At the time, it represented a desperate last ditch effort to secure peace between a bankrupt and beleaguered king and incredibly whiny, warring barons. The barons resented paying tax to a king who had failed to defend their rights, privileges and, most importantly, their territories in France. As a result, they wanted the king to stop raising taxes and seizing inheritances without their explicit consent, and much of the document deals with those more mundane issues, rather than profound issues of the constitutional governance of a nation.

John’s hand was finally forced by the threat of full scale civil war and he gave his seal to the document on June 15 1215, near the reeds of Runnymede on the Thames. In effect, Magna Carta ended absolute monarchy and introduced semi-constitutional monarchy. The king, like everyone else, was to be under the law.

Lincoln Castle, where one of the four remaining original copies of the Magna Carta is housed. Photo:

Magna Carta has grown in significance since. It was reissued four times over the first hundred years and has been cited in some of the greatest parliamentary and legal debates over constitutional reform. However, the original agreement lasted only a few months before Pope Innocent III annulled it, refusing to accept any constraint on the dignity and divine right of kings (clause 61). Civil war broke out shortly after, so the original version was not exactly a success; its later reissues more so.

William Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John (1590s) makes no mention of Magna Carta, reinforcing the view that its real constitutional importance came in later years – especially in the parliamentary debates leading up to the English civil war (1642-1651). As with so many of Shakespeare’s plays, it did leave us with the oft-misquoted phrase “to gild the lily“.

Over time, clauses of Magna Carta became absorbed into statute. Today, four clauses effectively remain in force: the freedom of the English church (clause one), the ancient liberties of the City of London (eight) and the right to due process (39/40). The last two, which became a single clause in the 1225 reissue, are the most significant, in that they state that people should be judged by their peers, and justice could not be delayed or sold. Recent governments have done their best to get around this right through extraordinary rendition and secret courts.

This incredible document has a special affinity for me as one of only four remaining copies (there is no original) sits in the castle prison in Lincoln, where I live, alongside its sister document, the Charter of the Forest. The castle is subject to a £22m refurbishment in advance of the 800th anniversary. Salisbury Cathedral has another copy and the British Library the other two. Magna Carta was also the basis of an alternate reality game I developed in 2006, which weaved its real history with a fictional tale of buried treasure.

Not many people know the courageous and pivotal roles played by Archbishop Stephen Langton, Elias of Dereham, William Marshal, Hubert de Burgh, Eustace the monk or Arthur of Brittany (the senior heir to Richard, reputed to be murdered by John, or on his orders). Nor do many know the throne of England nearly ended up in French hands with the popular support of the English, abruptly ending just under 150 years of independent Norman rule. Our history would have been radically different had Prince Louis Capet secured the throne in 1216.

John died (poisoned or broken by his struggles) in Newark Castle in October 1216, shortly after losing his baggage train and much of his wealth in the Wash between Lincolnshire and Norfolk. This created the schoolboy joke of “King John losing his Crown Jewels in the wash”. At that point, Prince Louis had captured Winchester and London, both our ancient and current capitals, plus half of England. John’s death allowed the rebellious barons to switch their support to his nine-year-old son, Henry III (although they probably regretted that decision by 1258). They simply wanted rid of John. Until his death, Louis was the only credible pretender. In 1297, John’s grandson, Edward I, directed that charters based on the Magna Carta become part of the common law of the land.

Salisbury Cathedral’s copy of Magna Carta is perhaps the best preserved of all four remaining original copies. Photo: chappy14 via

John’s reputation has been that of a ‘bad king’, akin to Richard III. No king since has shared either of their names. In reality, it is far more complex than that. John inherited a kingdom bankrupted by King Richard’s adventurous crusades, imprisonment and subsequent ransom. Richard spoke no English and hated the cold and rainy country with a passion, staying away for all but five months of his 10-year reign. He is reputed to have said, “I would have sold London if I could find a buyer.” Now, he is lionised as one of our greatest historical figures, with a triumphant statue outside parliament in London, the very place he wanted to sell. Richard shares as much with patriotic Englishmen as our patron saint, St George, a Greek Roman soldier who never set foot on our green and pleasant land.

Faced with bankruptcy and war with the expansionist Philip, King of France, John lost land in France, raised taxes and seized church assets, while trying to appoint his own loyal archbishop over the heads of the clergy of Canterbury. In doing so he annoyed the pope, leading to the whole of England being excommunicated for several years. It was clerics who wrote the historical records of the time and they didn’t like sharing their choice of archbishop, wealth or power. Despite victories against France in the early part of his reign, he eventually lost too much territory that belonged to his barons. In contrast, his father, Henry II, had controlled the vast majority of France through the Angevin Empire, by marriage and conquest.

He was undoubtedly a ruthless man, but what son of the overbearing Henry II and a Plantagenet would not have been? All of Henry’s sons rebelled against him at some point. John persecuted his enemies mercilessly, but that is nothing exceptional for those times, and he was a particular insecure monarch (nicknamed ‘Lackland’ and ‘Softsword’) with strong pretenders and powerful enemies. Killing relatives to secure your throne has been the modus operandi for a lot of rulers.

In many ways, his weaknesses and bad luck left open the opportunity for taxpaying barons to secure more power and show that there was an alternative to absolutism. Once the barons had secured more power, the door was open for the taxpaying cities and shires, the commons, to demand more power. The Boston Tea Party cry of “no taxation without representation” echoes down from Magna Carta. British rulers in 1773 clearly hadn’t learnt the lesson of Magna Carta.

John’s failings led to Magna Carta’s creation, which in turn seeded our parliamentary democracy. A stronger, more effective absolute monarch might have held that door shut for another century or two. This would have been good for the monarchy, but bad for the people.

Magna Carta says rulers are under the law and only rule with the people’s consent (albeit ‘the people’ were the barons in 1215). It says certain groups require special protection and we all have a fundamental right to justice and freedom from arbitrary decisions.

What we can learn from Magna Carta is that sometimes we need a weak government to have the opportunity to create a better government. Is it time for a new Magna Carta?

2015 marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta’s signing, and there are a range of events planned in both the UK and the US. These include exhibitions of the four remaining original copies, housed in Lincoln, Salisbury and at the British Library in London, starting in May 2014.

Featured photo: Eric Chan via Flickr

Further reading:

New plans to boost HMRC’s tax powers contradict Magna Carta principles

Functioning markets, functional democracy, sustainable economics and the rule of law

Labour urged to take ‘equal and sustainable society’ vision to next election

Osborne’s omission heralds escalating emissions

The Guide to Sustainable Democracy 2014

Simon Leadbetter is the founder and publisher of Blue & Green Tomorrow. He has held senior roles at Northcliffe, The Daily Telegraph, Santander, Barclaycard, AXA, Prudential and Fidelity. In 2004, he founded a marketing agency that worked amongst others with The Guardian, Vodafone, E.On and Liverpool Victoria. He sold this agency in 2006 and as Chief Marketing Officer for two VC-backed start-ups launched the online platform Cleantech Intelligence (which underpinned the The Guardian’s Cleantech 100) and StrategyEye Cleantech. Most recently, he was Marketing Director of Emap, the UK’s largest B2B publisher, and the founder of Blue & Green Communications Limited.


Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?



self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo |

Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?

But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?

The Big Picture

The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.

That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.

Driver Reduction?

One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.

As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.


Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.

Make and Model of Car

Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.

On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.

The Bottom Line

Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?

Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.

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New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035



renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart /

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.


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