Re-blogged from the Daily Telegraph with many thanks
Mori founder Sir Robert Worcester will use the 800th anniversary to reignite our faith in democracy
Matt Warman 8:05PM GMT 02 Jan 2014
On the banks of the River Medway in Kent stands the postcard-perfect Allington Castle. Its turrets, moat and portcullis, as yet untested in battle, stand as ready to defend England as they have been since 1281, when their owner applied to Edward I for permission to fortify a manor house. Today – finally – they are gearing up for a challenge 800 years in the making.
That’s because Allington’s current incumbent – the successor to Thomas Wyatt the poet, as well as his son Thomas Wyatt the rebel – is Sir Robert Worcester, the American psephologist who founded the polling company Mori.
Just turned 80, Sir Robert is as spry and engaged as ever, and the former pollster to Harold Wilson, Neil Kinnock and countless politicians has a new challenge which transcends mere party politics. His new task is to chair the committee that will coordinate the myriad events around the 800th anniversary of King John’s grand bargain with his barons, Magna Carta, sealed at Runnymede on June 15, 1215.
One doesn’t, of course, need to own an 800-year-old castle to commemorate an 800-year-old document. But the fact that Sir Robert chose Allington as his home underlines quite why there could hardly be a better person for the job than this American.
“When I came to this country in 1957, the first place I went was to the British Museum to see Magna Carta and the Rosetta Stone,” he says. “They are, to me, the foundation of a civilised society.”
It would be easy to argue that the Great Charter is no more relevant to today’s politics than Sir Robert’s castle is to modern warfare. Many claim that the agreement was simply a way for recalcitrant barons to vent their anger at a king who wanted to impose ever higher levels of taxation, so-called scutage money paid in lieu of military service.
“I think there are plenty of reasons to disagree with that,” says Sir Robert. “It is the foundation of human rights, of parliamentary democracy, it even standardised weights and measures such as the pint. It all added up, as Lord Denning put it, to the greatest legal document of all time. And it sets up the idea of no taxation without representation. If something that lost Britain a colony isn’t still relevant today, I don’t know what is.”
Sadly, not a lot of people know even those few details. Thanks to a post-war education system that ignored much of what happened between Roman Britain and Bismarck, just 26 per cent of Britons know that Magna Carta dates back to 1215, and still fewer can tell you what it contains. The same survey – by Mori, of course – found that 15 per cent of people hadn’t even heard of Magna Carta.
Sitting in his castle’s library, complete with false bookcase leading to a hidden staircase, and walls so thick that they won’t let so much as a mobile phone signal in, Sir Robert is not, however, eager to foist a history lesson on an indifferent British public. His aim is grander.
“The anniversary’s a history lesson in part, of course, but that’s alongside the story of the values we’ve lost sight of.”
Sir Robert argues that even grumpy complaints about the charges councils place on motorists for parking “come back to the heart of the relationship between the citizen and the state and if you don’t know history you’re bound to repeat its mistakes.
“We don’t need to go back to 1215, but we need to have different thinking from the people in power. Magna Carta was the 59th minute before full blown civil war, regicide. The king had lost control of where the wealth was and he knew he had to sign it. The anniversary, hopefully, will encourage people to participate, to take an interest, understand that political news is to do with them. So many people, particularly women when they’re polled, say: ‘It’s nothing to do with me, I don’t vote because it doesn’t affect me.’
“What I’m saying is not that we should pay less tax per se, but that the tax system should be fairer and more transparent. Politicians don’t want to know because they want to control all the money,” he adds, unhappily. “Particularly local councils.”
The values of Magna Carta, argues Sir Robert, are those that should remind the people in power that they have it with the consent of the people, not in spite of them. Popular disengagement with politics is down in part, he says, to people losing that sense of having a contract – their own charter – with government. “Politicians’ measures of trust are actually coming up,” he says, “but only because they were so low. I hate them saying they have to regain trust – they never had trust.”
Sir Robert has never voted in this country and says that, as long as he is working, he never will. He is scrupulous in emphasising that, while he was Harold Wilson’s private pollster, he was close to Margaret Thatcher, and has good friends across the political spectrum. But he breaks his own rule for the Liberal Democrats: “Going back on the plan to change constituency boundaries was even worse than the student fees in terms of ratting on promises,” he says. “Clegg went the wrong way on both of them.”
Still, it is the principles rather than the parties in politics that are clearly his true passion. He says he abandoned activism for the facts of polling.
“The degree to which this is an elected dictatorship continues to bother me,” he says. “If the prime minister’s got the Cabinet with them, you’re not going to lose a vote of confidence. If Cameron had put Clegg in his place very early on so the tail wasn’t wagging the dog, we could have avoided things like the boundaries issue, which are terribly anti-democratic, terrible for democracy.”
While he says it is undemocratic to have more voters in some constituencies than others, Sir Robert knows politics is not his profession. He once told Jim Callaghan that the latter was asking “a question that requires a political judgment and replied: ‘You don’t pay me for a political judgment.’ Callaghan responded: ‘Quite right, Bob’ and moved on.”
Sir Robert has, however, written books on many previous elections – “I don’t have many readers but they’re closely read by my competitors” – and thinks 2015 is shaping up for an outright win. “Ukip will get one MP, I think. Miliband’s losing it but he’s on course for a small majority at this stage. I think it’s obvious the Liberal Democrats are going to get hammered. When I said that at their conference in Glasgow, there was only one protest at all and that was from Menzies Campbell.”
The real challenge, though, is persuading anyone to vote. “I used to do an hour with prospective Labour members of parliament,” he says, “and I would end by asking how many were committee chairmen on local councils. Most of them were and I would say: ‘Stay right where you are, because you’ve got more power to do good as a local councillor, with some budget, than you will as a back-bench Member of Parliament.’ ” None, apparently, took his advice.
Many thousands, however, are expected to turn out for the Magna Carta celebrations next year. A newly elected prime minister will invite the Queen to sign a reaffirmation of its principles, and there is even talk of involving the UN in a bid to encourage the world’s nations to endorse the idea of the rule of law.
For a man who has counted both the Thatchers and the Kinnocks as friends, uniting nations is a fitting next step for Sir Robert and a fitting tribute to Magna Carta – “Britain’s greatest export”.