So there is more than one Old Etonian hoping to ride to the nation’s rescue. My first reaction to the news that Justin Welby is involved in plans for a citizens’ assembly to find an alternative to a no-deal Brexit was sceptical. Too late for such an initiative. Give Boris a chance to get on with it. Nice idea that the established Church can help us to get beyond political tribalism, but surely doomed to failure. The coming scrap between remainers and the Government is not a place for nice clergymen.
Then I remembered: I had the same sort of reaction to the news, over two years ago, that Welby was calling for a cross-party commission to find a way forward. That seemed naïve. Of course Brexit can only be pursued by the normal political means, I felt, despite the risk of tribal positions ousting sensible consensus. The government will hardly agree to limit its own power, and hand authority to grandees from other parties.
But in retrospect he was right. A year after the referendum, it was becoming evident that normal politics wasn’t working. Most of us just hoped that the impression was false, that Theresa May could sort something out. But Welby sensed, well ahead of the curve, that normal politics was disabled by the Brexit divisions, and messy paralysis loomed. He saw that party politics is sometimes too ideological and little to address a major crisis. In a sense it was naïve to think that a cross party commission could have taken over, but sometimes a seemingly naïve viewpoint is worth voicing.
So it seems to me that Welby has some authority here. Maybe he and the assembly won’t be needed. Maybe normal politics can, at the eleventh hour, do the job, with the appropriately bullish leader in place. But maybe it can’t – and so I am all in favour of a back-up plan from another quarter.