Anthropologists have speculated that one of the roles of the shaman in hunter-gatherer societies was to preserve group unity. When members of the tribe were about to set out on a hunt, they would consult the shaman who would tell them where to go by 'consulting the ancestors' or reading runes or whatever. The crucial element was that it didn’t matter whether the shaman was right or wrong – the group trusted the decision and were able to set off with a unity of purpose, unencumbered by rifts within the group. From a survival point of view, this makes sense because regardless of the quality of advice, the most important element of a successful hunt was that the group was capable of working together effectively.
This is the light in which we should see Rory Stewart’s proposal for a Citizens’ Assembly to decide on the best course of action regarding Brexit.
The idea of a Citizens’Assembly (borrowed in part from the Ireland abortion debate) is that a representative sample of the public, perhaps numbering between 500 and 1,000, would be corralled for a month to work through the issues, receiving seminars from experts. Then, following this process, they would be capable of coming to a consensus.
Speaking to Matt Forde on Wednesday, Stewart justified this approach, highlighting the fact that most people in the country hadn’t read the Withdrawal Agreement and, even if they were willing to, they would find it very hard to comprehend due its references to other EU directives and European law. He further stated that there were few MPs in the House who really understood the agreement despite voting on it three times.
This means that public attitudes to the Withdrawal Agreement tend to be taken from politicians who they trust as being on their side, whether that politician is well informed or not.
For example, Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and David Davis all believe that the Withdrawal Agreement does not provide a Brexit that is pure enough (by some arbitrary standard), and they have transmitted that disdain to much of the Brexit-voting public. This is apparent from the many episodes of Question Time where members of the audience parrot politicians' soundbites about 'a WTO Brexit' and ask 'Why can’t we just leave?'
On the other side of the argument, MPs who really just want to remain in the EU have found another set of excuses to explain why the Withdrawal Agreement is unsatisfactory and they have transmitted their preferences to their tribe as well with endless calls for a second referendum.
Once you add the layers of party politics on top of this, with the many Labour MPs (and voters) who would support the Withdrawal Agreement if it weren’t a Tory proposal, then it’s no wonder that public opposition to the deal is high and that parliament is unable to make progress.
The fact remains that any deal to leave the EU while preventing borders between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and between NI and the rest of the UK would, by necessity, resemble the current Withdrawal Agreement. The transition period is another UK request, to give business two years to adjust to whatever future trade arrangements there will be. While other deals are theoretically available, there are no others which adhere to those preconditions. As one of the most ardent defenders of the deal, it is clear the Rory Stewart understands this and is keen that others do too.
So it is clearly Stewart’s conviction that if a group composed of members of the public understood all of the various interlocking issues then they too would accept the need for the Withdrawal Agreement in something approximating its current form. The beauty of the concept is that it gives the rest of the public a new body in which it can place its trust without having to follow the arguments themselves, essentially: 'If it’s alright for them, then it’s alright for me'. Members of Parliament who were reluctant to vote for the deal when being pushed by the Tories will be given cover by referring to the decision of the assembly. Hardliners in the Conservative party looking for a ladder to climb down might also be grateful of such an excuse.
In a sense, like the shaman, the Citizens’ Assembly would be both meaningless and profoundly meaningful. It doesn’t matter what outcome it decided, it would provide a means to unify the country. And at this point, that is something that is badly needed.