May 4, 2023   5 mins

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is weird. Just look at how it plays sport. It competes in the Olympics as Great Britain, while in football it plays as separate entities called England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In rugby, meanwhile, Northern Ireland doesn’t get a team, and in cricket, the Welsh play for England. Don’t ask. 

But this sporting oddity is only a pale reflection of the UK’s political and constitutional complexity. While it is one sovereign state with one King, it has two established churches, three judicial systems, four home nations, and a whole host of crown dependencies and overseas territories which form part of its single, royal realm. (Are you following at the back?) And that’s before you consider the fact that the King of the United Kingdom (not England) is also king of lots of other countries with lots of other titles, which were once also part of the UK’s single royal realm but are no longer. 

To some, the impenetrable complexity of the UK and its royal family is part of its strength. Nations aren’t “rational” constructs but the products of history and human imagination; old trees which suit the soil in which they grow, not brutalist modern buildings rising from concrete. In fact, often the more arcane a country’s political order, the better. The Holy Roman Empire was impenetrably messy but gloriously superior to many of the Germanies which followed its violent destruction. 

This is the Burkean conception of constitutions, anyway: organic orders which contain much that cannot be justified in simple rational terms but nevertheless provide the shelter under which nations live freely and in harmony — often more freely than those constantly forced to cut down and rebuild their societies based on some abstract principle. As T.S. Eliot wrote, art does not “improve” with time but simply changes to reflect the new material. So, too, with constitutions.

While I agree with much of this Burkean analysis, it also seems clear to me that the British constitution today is not some glorious old oak left to grow naturally, but the product of half-arsed topiary. The UK has been robbed of much of the organic strength of a traditional constitutional order without gaining the simplicity of a revolutionary constitution; we have the constitution of Ted Heath, not Edmund Burke or Napoleon Bonaparte. 

Nothing better illustrates this reality than our impenetrable local democracy. Occasionally, someone or other tries to call Britain’s local elections our “midterms”, but they are nothing of the kind. In the United States, every seat in the House of Representatives is up for grabs every two years — as well as a third of the Senate. The midterms are a chance for the American public as a whole to grant or deny the President legislative control. They are an important moment in the life of the nation, part of its ever evolving story. In Britain, meanwhile, local elections happen every year in some form or another and are so arcanely complicated that almost nobody understands what is going on. Today, for example, around 8,000 councillors will be elected from around two thirds of our 300-plus local authorities in England. Why some councils vote in this four-year pattern and not another is largely just chance. Scotland and Wales will not be voting; Northern Ireland will vote in a couple of weeks.

The map of British local democracy makes the principalities in the Holy Roman Empire look positively geometric. In some parts of England there are “county councils” and “district councils”; in others “unitary” authorities; and in others metropolitan boroughs. Some of these hold elections for a third of their councillors each time, some for half. Some parts of the country also have “metro mayors”, some of whom double up as local police and crime commissioners. There are fire and rescue authorities, sui generis councils such as the City of London and the Council of the Isles of Scilly as well as the Greater London Authority and, of course, the devolved parliaments and assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each body has different powers and responsibilities, each funded according to different formulas described by the House of Commons library as “extremely complex”. Meanwhile, voting systems differ across the nations.

The problem is not so much the complexity of Britain’s political order, but the fact that it just doesn’t hold together: partly the product of tradition and partly of supposedly modernising reforms which have just been bolted on here and there. The result is a whole array of competing bodies with criss-crossing lines of responsibility and legitimacy, a mishmash of incohesion that robs the country of shared national moments, customs and stories. A country needs more than an army and king to hang together. 

Roger Scruton wrote that most beliefs necessary for the functioning of society are both “unjustified and unjustifiable” in purely rational terms; try to rationalise them, and you’ll end up losing them. National customs are justified not through reason but rather “as an anthropologist might justify the customs and rituals of an alien tribe”.

The House of Lords, rationalised to the point of illegitimacy, illustrates this perfectly. It once represented the landed interests of Britain, a national class stretching from Orkney to the Scillies, bound in a physical connection to the parts of the country that they owned and ran. In 1999, Tony Blair’s reform seemed necessary because much of this class’s old power and authority had gone. But what replaced it has made the Lords even more absurd: a House of inherited privilege has been replaced with an instrument of political corruption shorn of all power, responsibility and justification. The body which fused the powers of state more than any other — king, church, law, legislature and executive — is now a dead and rotting organ at the heart of Britain’s constitution. 

Something similar has happened with local democracy, which lost much of its autonomy and connection to the traditional boundaries of Britain with the local government reform act of 1974. This did away with many of the old county boundaries, replacing them with new more “rational” ones which might have looked good on a map, but did not plot onto the real-life loyalties of the people actually living on the land. The old counties of Britain could easily have formed the basis of a new class of elected peers for the House of Lords — or for a layer of English local democracy to match the parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Instead, new ones were created and crowbarred into the old system, neither rational nor traditional. 

There is something of the ancien regime to Britain’s local democracy. In pre-revolutionary France, there were more than 300 different legal codes. By the time Napoleon began reforming the system there were still over 40. And by the time he’d finished reforming the system there was one. “Napoleon instinctively understood that if France was to function efficiently in the modern world, she needed a standardised system of law and justice,” wrote Andrew Roberts. “Uniform weights and measures, a fully functioning internal market and a centralised education system, one that would allow talented adolescents from all backgrounds to enter careers according to merit rather than birth.”

Like post-revolutionary France, paradoxically, we are also in need of someone who can make sense of it all over again — a Napoleon to reinvigorate the British political order, to prune it back to give it life. Napoleon created a strong, unified nation state from a place even more diverse than the UK today. From a population of 28 million, some six million could not speak a word of French and another six million could only just understand it. After the chaos of the revolution, the population wanted conservatism, and Napoleon gave it to them. 

Today, Britain also needs a reforming state to once again bind the country together, to protect the things we have — nation, state, constitutional freedom and prosperity. We need more shared rituals, irrational or otherwise; more shared institutions; and more shared endeavours in order for us to keep telling a national story and not multiple little sub-national novellas that are unintelligible to the other. The old oak needs cutting back to be able to grow again. Vive L’Empereur! 


is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.

TomMcTague