What is the UK?

Tom Forth, .

I have a similar opinion of the UK as David Cameron did about the EU. I understand why it exists, I understand why people want to leave, I think it's better than the alternatives, and I think that we can improve it from within.

My patience gets tested when the UK government tells local councils when to collect bins, tries to ban booking systems for municipal tips, and admits that even though remote meetings of local government have worked well, they can't continue because the UK government would find it too hard to pass the law undoing their previous law making them illegal.

A few deep breaths usually wins me back round to the UK. Sometimes it takes a short walk. I should probably move to a city where it rains less given the number of such walks I've had to take in recent years.

What are you talking about?

But what is the UK? What is it that about half of Scotland, and importantly most of its people still young enough to work, want to leave. What is it that I want to remain in with them?

When an incident like the suspension of a teacher in Batley for showing offensive cartoons in a class on freedom of speech happens and people talk about the UK being a secular country, how do I respond? England has a state religion doesn't it? Does Scotland? Does Wales? Where would I find out?

When the leader of the House of Commons lumps Welsh together with foreign languages, is he wrong? What even is Wales? Is it a nation? A country? A principality? Is it represented on the UK's flag?

I understand that almost all positions on these statements are contested. The UK's history is not boring, and I understand that. But do we really not have an official position on this stuff?

Where do we even say that the Union flag is the UK's flag? It's so hard to find out that Google has had it wrong on their websites for at least a week now.

While the UK government is passing laws on how devolved and local governments should fly flags, it cannot provide a clear enough definition of its own constitution that Google can get the UK's flag right on the most-used website on Earth.

Google know about the UK flag problem and they are struggling to fix it. I might quip that perhaps the reason that they bought Deepmind, the world-leading UK artificial intelligence company, was to fix problems like this. It's just that folding proteins and beating humans at the game Go, both among the most challenging problems in computing, turned out to be easy compared to understanding the UK.

A constitution

One way to fix this problem would be to have a constitution. The USA has a constitution. Leeds City Council has a constitution. France has a constitution.

I like the French constitution. It's not perfect of course, nothing is, but it's a good effort. It gets things set out right at the top, from which I translate excerpts.

Article 1: France is a Republic. Article 2: French is the language, the flag is blue, white, and red, the national anthem is the Marseillaise, the slogan is Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.

Because I'd like something similar in the UK I am some blend of traitorous and extremely silly in the eyes of many. A perfect expression of this is David Allen Green's blog post You say you want a ‘written constitution’? Here are four online places where it is already written down.

The first of the four places that he suggests finding out what the UK is says that the UK is a member of the European Union. It's on page 71 if you want to check. The UK is, somewhat famously, not a member of the EU.

It would be careless for me to trust anything else in the document, or any of the other three documents linked to off the blog post. And yet I have endured many lectures about how beautifully complex and nuanced the UK's constitution is. From people who I have many reasons to believe would, if they made the effort, also place such a link at the top of their list of "well actually, I am very smart" rebuttals to my suggestion that a written constitution would be less bad than what we've got now.

The web

So where would a constitution for the UK, or something similar written by the government of the UK, go? On the web of course, given that a UK citizen (or should that be a British citizen?) invented it.

The UK government is very proud of the work that it has done on its website at gov.uk in the past decade. And I agree that a lot of the work that they've done is excellent. But I often feel that efforts spent banning Excel spreadsheets and PDFs and creating a single register to vote to service for the whole country were "meeting user needs" less than other tasks left undone like creating an open address system, or explaining what the UK is.

If I ask gov.uk, the much-celebrated single website of the UK government, "what is the UK?" it invites me to read a page on carrying out international road haulage.

The UK government's website doesn't tell you what the UK is. Not really. Not in a single document that you can trust to be correct.

If I ask gov.uk for "the UK constitution", I am invited to read the UK's official statement on constitutional reform in Kyrgyzstan. When I ask online for some advice and have it suggested that I look up the constitution directorate, I search for that on gov.uk and I am given guidance on how to register as a company director.

I think that this is a big problem. I get called silly for having that opinion, so in the past I've mostly shut up. But if we are going to try and save a country, don't we need to know what we're trying to save? I feel that the disinterest in the UK government in defining the UK or putting that definition on its website is a symptom of the underlying problem that leaves us with two of the four,... parts?!,... of the UK somewhat likely to ask to leave within a decade.

I'd like to help fix this problem. I don't even know where I'd start. Do any of you know?

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