An anti-immigration protester in Dover (SUSANNAH IRELAND/AFP via Getty Images)

December 13, 2023   5 mins

The English hatred for incompetent tyrants runs deep. In 1215, King John of England was forced to sign a treaty limiting royal power, after his most powerful barons rebelled against his military incompetence, arbitrary decision-making, and swingeing tax regime. Yet even among the Anglo-Saxon kings of the so-called Dark Ages, it was understood that before kingship comes popular consent.

Who gets to rule, and on what terms? This question underpins some of the most turbulent episodes in English domestic history. After a few centuries of relative quiet, it’s recently bubbled to the surface: first in the chaos that followed the 2016 Brexit vote, and afterwards in the issue of immigration. Most recently, it’s the deep story behind the drama over Sunak’s “Rwanda policy”.

England is, once again, revisiting a question we’ve asked at intervals since Bad King John: what political arrangement best guarantees our way of life? The Savoyard aristocrat and counter-revolutionary Joseph de Maistre, a keen observer of English political history, might have replied that this has the question backwards. In Studies on Sovereignty (1796), he argued that there’s no point trying to start with an ideal form of government, for “the government of a nation is no more its own work than is its language”. Nor is there any universally best form of government: rather, “all peoples have the government that suits them, and none has chosen it”.

De Maistre made these arguments against then-contemporary revolutionary efforts to rewrite France’s political settlement from the ground up. He argued that this attempt wasn’t just hubristic but impossible: that one cannot simply devise a constitution from first principles, “like a watchmaker makes a watch”. Rather, governments that actually suit a people emerge, over time, in conjunction with the specific geographic, cultural, economic and religious traits of that people. And if the people themselves are not predisposed to value what the constitution grants, then it doesn’t matter what the document says; you still won’t get the desired result. For as he argues, the settlement appropriate to a people reflects that people’s unwritten, core assumptions — what he calls “political dogmas” — that precede and give shape to the space of political possibility and command maximum power not once codified as a constitution, but before anyone writes them down.

If de Maistre had lived to see the 20th century, he might have illustrated this with the Russian political settlement since the 1917 revolution, which sought to depose a remote, ultra-wealthy aristocratic class that lived by extracting rents from an immiserated peasantry, while leading gilded international lives. He might have noted that the resulting, nominally Communist government also produced a remote, wealthy nomenklatura which extracted rents from a peasant class, while themselves living in luxury. And that since the 1991 upheavals that deposed this class, Russia is still somehow governed by a remote, ultra-wealthy aristocratic class that extracts rents from a ground-under peasantry, while leading gilded international lives. From this we might infer further that, had the international coalition that tried to democratise Iraq and Afghanistan at the turn of the millennium read Studies on Sovereignty, we might have saved many military lives and a great deal of money.

While I can’t speculate on Afghans’ or Russians’ political dogmas, over a millennium of English political history suggests that, for the English, a central one is that rule by absolutists is Just Not On — especially when they’re not even much good at ruling. During the 10th century, for instance, Anglo-Saxon kings weren’t crowned unless they received the imprimatur of the Witenagemot, a council of high-ranking lords on whose loyalty and military mustering-power that king would subsequently rely on to defend his realm. And though a great deal had changed in England by the 17th century, this turned out to be still more or less true. Charles I was beheaded in 1649 for, among other things, making too strong a claim to absolute rule: repeatedly dissolving Parliament when it didn’t go along with his demands, and only reconstituting it to ask for more money.

Importantly, though, this wasn’t a revolution. The majority of Englishmen did not want to abolish the monarchy, and just thought Charles was doing it wrong. After his death, Cromwell governed under the Protectorate, to all intents and purposes as a monarch; then, in 1660, Charles II was restored to the throne. But even then, the balance between Crown and Parliament was still off. In the late 17th century, James II found himself forced into absolutism to achieve his ends, and was again put in his place by the Witenagemot of his era: booted from the throne, and replaced with the more ductile (and Protestant) William and Mary.

The resulting consensus — formalised via the 1701 Act of Settlement — represents the constitution of which Joseph de Maistre wrote approvingly, when he described how “the civil and religious liberties of England are there newly consecrated”. That constitution held, by and large, until the dissolution of the British Empire in the Sixties, and Britain’s 1973 accession to the EU: a curious political phenomenon in which the ruling elites of several post-imperial European states collaborated to colonise one another, as a kind of retirement project. As was exhaustively debated in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, in the course of doing so, many powers previously wielded by the Crown in Parliament were ceded to the impersonal hands of international treaties: an abstract order created from first principles, more like the “watchmaker” approach deplored by Joseph de Maistre.

And the Brexit vote was, at its heart, a popular revolt against this state of affairs: one deeply rooted in England’s unwritten political dogmas. For some Brexiteers, the main complaint was constitutional: that EU membership subordinated Britain’s sovereign Parliament to an unaccountable supranational government. For others, the grievance was more concrete: the fact that the powers ceded included control of immigration policy.

In turn, the Leave vote prompted several years of political psychodrama so painful I doubt anyone wants to revisit the detail. Importantly, though, the climax turned on the relation between parliamentary sovereignty and the supposedly pre-political, impersonal domain of law. Four years ago this week, Boris Johnson was elected in a landslide, after a white-hot constitutional battle. In it, Johnson threatened to prorogue Parliament to force Brexit through. After Remainer MPs got this ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court, Johnson called a snap election on a promise to “Get Brexit Done” and the rest, as they say, is history.

The dispute clarified a fact long submerged in the detail of Brexit: that it was partly a dispute over the competing political settlements now claiming the rightful government of England. On one side, the “rule of law”: an abstract system, comprising post-war international treaties, naturalised EU laws, and a series of “reforms” instituted by Tony Blair and his inheritors. This is the project de Maistre warned against: an effort to escape history for the impersonal systems, and where the final arbiter is not political but juridical — in Britain’s case, the 2009 Blair-era innovation of the “Supreme Court”. On the other, we have the emergent, gradually accumulated settlement whose core assumptions persist, as unwritten as ever, in a spirit largely unaltered since Bad King John.

Johnson won his landslide by standing up for the older political settlement, against the new technocratic one. But his victory has not resolved matters, any more than the instructive example of Charles I settled matters four centuries ago. Far from it: in terms of the grievances Brexit was intended to remedy, it has been a signal failure.

So far, immigration is not only not reduced, but significantly higher than pre-Brexit. Parliamentary supremacy, meanwhile, seems as hog-tied as ever by international obligations, agreements, and regulations — all enforced by the Supreme Court. If the Rwanda drama that engulfed Parliament this week tells us anything, it’s that we are a long way from having resolved the current imbalance in England’s political settlement to the satisfaction of the English people.

It’s clear that, for many voters today, the supposedly superior “neutral” system of laws is taking on the same hated characteristics of incompetence and despotism as a Bad King John.

It remains to be seen whether, having scraped a victory in Tuesday’s vote by 313 to 269, Rishi Sunak will succeed in reclaiming Parliamentary sovereignty — or whether this merely means the dispute will shift to some other disputed system of rules, agreements and obligations.

In any case, it’s clear that this fight will be ongoing — and also that it’s only secondarily about migrants. At its heart, it is the latest round of an ongoing dispute over how best to adjust the English political settlement for today’s conditions, while ensuring it still suits England and its people. And if history is any guide, this will continue until some compromise is reached that the English people finds acceptable. Or, alternatively, until the utopians manage to follow through on Bertolt Brecht’s ironic advice, and dissolve the people so another can be elected.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.