Sitting in the beautiful parish church of St Mary’s in Horsham on Sunday for the Judges’ Service, I reflected on some of the recent debate about British values and what is good about our land which binds our diverse people together.
It struck me that if you want to judge a people by its values, you could do far worse than to look at its legal and democratic system. The service on Sunday was organised by the High Sheriff of West Sussex, Jonathan Lucas, current holder of that ancient office of some 1,300 years’ standing, which derives from the Shire Reeve (County Bailiff).
Over the centuries the power and influence of the Sheriffs has waxed and waned, but their role in defining and upholding our Common Law is a silver thread running through our history.
As we look to celebrate 800 years of Magna Carta next year, it is worth noting that more than a third of its clauses curbing the sovereign’s power relate to the role of the Sheriff.
In the 19th century most of the Sheriff’s residual powers were transferred to the local constabulary, Crown Commissioners, Prison Commissioners, the Inland Revenue and county councils, most of whom were fully represented at the service with of course the Judges in their gowns and wigs.
The High Sheriff, who is the Sovereign’s representative in all judicial matters, wears a badge showing two crossed swords, which are presented at his or her Coronation. The sword of Justice is sharp, and the Sword of Mercy is blunt, offering rehabilitation, forgiveness and redemption.
It was a moving and important public occasion in which to be reminded of these themes in our heritage and culture, and as I looked round at the number of public servants, volunteers or otherwise, who hold the fabric of our free speaking democracy together, it did make me quite proud to be British.