Justin Welby has been in Africa, but no one really cared much about that. He went to inaugurate the new autonomous Anglican province of Sudan and to highlight the plight of a million refugees. But there has been scant reporting of that. What made the news here were his comments on same-sex marriage, and his musings on Brexit. Which is a bit of a pity, because we all know that the former is an intractable cause of division in the Church of England, and the latter an intractable cause of division in the whole country; and, actually, the plight of the starving, sick and homeless refugees in Sudan is of far greater concern to Jesus…
“The chances of getting (Brexit) done in 18 months is infinitesimally small,” the Archbishop of Canterbury told the BBC R4 Today programme. It’s helpful to set that comment in its full context. He said:
You’ve got to remember on Brexit that there are literally thousands of separate agreements to come to, in order to process through the treaties and the agreements and all the things that need to happen. If each one of those has to be argued as a point of confidence on the floor of the House of Commons, the chances of getting this done in what’s now roughly 18 months are infinitesimally small. There has to be the political leadership that says, ‘We have major questions that are political, huge political decisions – the obvious ones the single market and customs union – but there are thousands of other decisions that can be made.’ Can the politicians not put at the front of their minds the needs of the United Kingdom to come out with a functional, working system for Brexit, and agree that certain things are, is it were, off the political table, and will be decided separately in an expert commission or a commission of senior politicians led by someone that is trusted in the political world?
So Justin Welby’s solution to the intractable problem of Brexit is to place “certain things” into the hands of an elite “expert commission”, which must be “led by someone who is trusted in the political world”.
He doesn’t specify what these “certain things” must be; nor does he elaborate on the constitution of this “expert commission”; nor does he identify a possible candidate for the role of universally-trusted leader. But let us imagine that these “certain things” which are taken “off the political table” include the UK’s continuing membership of the Single Market and Customs Union; and that this “expert commission” includes such names as Peter (Lord) Mandelson and Neil (Lord) Kinnock and Michael (Lord Heseltine) and Kenneth Clarke and Nick Clegg and a bishop or two, such as “Brexit nightmare” Andrew Watson ” (+Guildford) and “roots down, walls down” Paul Bayes (+Liverpool). And let us imagine this universally-trusted leader is…
Well, who exactly? Who possesses the charisma, the exceptional qualities and the force of personality by which all factions may be united? Who possesses the extraordinary virtue around which they may all coalesce? Who is this supernatural superhuman?
It can’t be any partisan PM emeritus, such as Tony Blair or John Major or David Cameron, for such names ring with division and echo of discontent. Indeed, it can’t really be a politician of any party colour, for, by definition, they cannot be trusted in and by the whole political world; that is to say, eyes of suspicion will glare and opposing minds will mouth their sectarian grievances. So who is this unifying supreme commissioner to be?
Does it not occur to the Archbishop of Canterbury that the process of securing cross-party agreement on the leader of such a commission may be as intractable as corralling agreement on same-sex marriage across the Anglican Communion? That aside, does it not occur to him that his proposal has the potential to stoke the Brexit fires of division hotter still, or even foment civil unrest?
What he is proposing is that a self-appointed group of elected ministers – let’s call them the Brexit Council – gather together and determine which “certain things” shall be taken “off the political table” and conferred upon a higher authority – let’s call it the Brexit Commission – which will be politically independent. Together they will determine which Commissioner will preside over all Brexit deliberations with supreme apolitical authority. Each Brexit Commissioner might hold a specific portfolio of expertise – economic, environmental, social, agricultural issues, and suchlike. Together they will consider (in camera) Brexit complexities, issue Brexit proposals, implement Brexit decisions, and manage the day-to-day business of Brexit. Of course, the Brexit Commission will be accountable in theory to Parliament, but its partisan politicians will be expected to rubber-stamp whatever directives and decrees are issued because the Brexit Commission exists to carry out the duties prescribed by Parliament for the common good; to protect the people; perhaps even bound by an oath of office to represent the general interest of the UK as a whole rather than serve their own political ends.
Does that approach ring any bells?
When you replace dynamic democracy with centralised bureaucracy, you negate equality, hinder accountability and deny justice. The ‘experts’ of special qualification and elite privilege determine what is good and what is best, while the oppressed democrats rail against the unaccountability of the officialdom to which they are subject and expected to show allegiance. If an election cannot change policy, people will seek alternative means to effect the reformation they desire. If the referendum ballot box simply exchanges one aloof and unaccountable commission for another – even in the name of the common good and “the needs of the United Kingdom” – we ought not to be surprised if conflict ensues between democratic tendencies toward self-realision and the iron cage of bureaucratic specialisation in which the people are confined.
No, Archbishop, with enormous respect, the Brexit vote expressed a desire for levelling: it was a vote by the small cogs against the vast combined mechanisms of oligarchy, autocracy and bureaucracy. It was a vote against a seemingly indestructible system of social, economic and political domination. It was a vote against the infallible administrators of immutable policy heading inexorably toward a pre-ordained destination. It was a vote for liberty, democracy and accountability. It was a vote for reformation, for greater justice, for the UK to look to and move with confidence in the wider world, rather than be bound by the myopic interests of a half-Europe narrow collective.
The bureaucratic instinct is to centralise further and strengthen its own powers; to replace its own officials with like minds; to control all means of communication between the government and public to convey stability, reliability, precision, discipline and ensure the calculability of enlightened outcome. It all sounds so very Christian, and the Archbishop of Canterbury obviously wants a Christian Brexit of love, peace and reconciliation.
But in a healthy, functioning democracy, there is dispute, division, deception, emotivism and intractable dilemma. It is messy and murky, painful and bothersome, and it’s meant to be. There is no matter of public policy which can be taken “off the political table” for the sake of expedience, or “decided separately in an expert commission or a commission of senior politicians” just because time is running out, for this rigidity reduces the political autonomy of the mass of the population, hampers their progress and kills their dreams. And that makes them victims. And that way lies revolution.