My Lords, Sir Bob Worcester, the chairman of the Magna Carta 800th anniversary commemoration committee, in a recent speech, summed it up really well—foundation of human rights, father of all constitutions, basis of our civil liberties, rights of free men and now women and of legal tradition, the bedrock of our systems of democracy. Then he says, “Who are its guardians?” He says it is our system of rule of law, jurisprudence, of justice. I say the guardian of this nation is this wonderful, unelected House, which is the cornerstone of our democracy.
As the first Zoroastrian Parsee to sit in this House, I would like to talk about Cyrus the Great, one of the greatest emperors of the ancient world, best known for two things. The first is the Cyrus cylinder, perhaps the first recognisable modern legal instrument. In the UK we consider the role of the Magna Carta. Without fail when I take people round this House, I show them the facsimile copy in the Contents Lobby. We think it is great: sealed in 1215 on the field of Runnymede; the first bill of rights; power of the barons over the king; the establishment of the House of Lords and the House of Commons; a Parliament free of the direct control of the monarch.
However, the Magna Carta is juvenile compared to Cyrus’s cylinder—a declaration found in the ruins of ancient Babylon that set out the great deeds and genealogy of Emperor Cyrus. Created around 530 BC, the cylinder notes Cyrus’s great humility and tolerance, which formed vital aspects of the tradition of the Zoroastrian faith. This is true because of the role that
Cyrus played, not just in the protection but in the active promotion of many religions and faiths that flourished in the Persian empire during his time. It cites his building projects and the territories that he conquered.
Cyrus is well known for his magnanimity. A specific example is the refuge that he gave to the Jews in Egypt. Is that not amazing? Magnanimous—Magna Carta. Neither Cyrus nor the Magi priests in his court who acted as advisers sought to convert the people of the conquered lands to the Zoroastrian faith.
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd. What a fabulous speech—as always. “A celebration of democracy”, she said. She says that the House of Lords feels left out, and that the Houses of Parliament should be the headquarters of the celebration in the 800th year. All four original copies should be here. Her idea of a joint session of both Houses to celebrate it is fantastic, and it should take place on 15 June 2015.
We know that the British Library holds two copies of the original Magna Carta. I am proud to be an ambassador for the British Library’s Business & IP Centre, and I assure noble Lords that I will do my best to try to persuade it to play a role. The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, mentioned the Prime Minister stumbling on American TV when he was asked what Magna Carta stood for. He could not say, “the Great Charter”, and he could not remember the date, 15 June 1215. We need everyone, particularly schoolchildren, to know this. The noble Lord, Lord Bourne, in his excellent maiden speech, mentioned the British Council. We have this wonderful institution, of which the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, is deputy chairman, to spread to word of the Magna Carta in these celebrations around the world through our British Council centres.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, spoke of a Magna Carta for now. Why do not we—the House of Lords—have a competition around the country for schoolchildren to come up with a Magna Carta for today, and then have the debate in the House of Lords that we have every year? It would be wonderful. We do not have a written constitution. In a recent speech, Vernon Bogdanor said that almost every country has a written constitution, but our constitution has evolved, adapted and developed. It has been spontaneous. We do not want a written constitution; it would not be right for the structure that exists now. But what a wonderful idea to have a competition for a Magna Carta for today.
I am so thrilled to hear the noble Lord, Lord Bew, give his assurance to the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, that she, and we, will not be disappointed. That is very reassuring. I ask the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, to reaffirm this reassurance. There is no question that the Magna Carta celebrations should be held in the magna-Parliament—this Parliament here in Westminster.