‘Politics is polarised’ intoned the chatterati after the Obama-Romney race to the White House. ‘Sick of party politics’ said the people after the elections for Police and Crime Commissioners. Ancient Athenians knew why.
One of the many virtues of Athens’ direct democracy (508-323 bc) was not just that citizens (male Athenians over 18) meeting every week or so in Assembly made all the decisions about policy; it was the absence of political parties in our sense. As a result, the Athenian people in Assembly were not bound by any of the preconditions or assumptions that for historical reasons have shaped our party system. There were no manifesto promises, special interest groups or traditional allegiances (e.g. ‘Clause 4’ issues) to dog their decision-making. No one was intent on ‘winning the next election’, since there was (by definition) no ‘next election’ to win. The people in Assembly had only one priority — to listen to the arguments relating to any proposal and decide where their best interests lie. A majority vote, by a show of hands, determined the outcome. Further, if the Assembly really could not make up its mind because too many persuasive speakers were making different cases, they could use the process known as ostracism to vote one of them into exile.
Aristotle himself (384-322 bc) saw some virtue in mass decision-making. He argued that one of the things that could be said for real democracy was that the more people who had a say, the more likely one was to get a reasonable result, since many brains were better than one; and he applied the same argument to the judging of poetry and plays. ‘For even where there are many people, each has some share of virtue and practical wisdom; and when they are brought together… they become one in regard to character and intelligence.’
The political debate is polarised because the parties choose to polarise it. It is the inevitable consequence of our system. So even in coalition Tories and Lib Dems are quite incapable of make common cause. And that is why people are sick of politics. No one seems interested in seeking the common good. Party good is all that counts.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 24 November 2012