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Ancient and modern

Ancient & modern

Tough decisions! Yes! That’s Gordon for you! The problem is thinking of one: national debt? global warming? school standards? Not a peep.

6 January 2010

12:00 AM

6 January 2010

12:00 AM

Tough decisions! Yes! That’s Gordon for you! The problem is thinking of one: national debt? global warming? school standards? Not a peep.

Tough decisions! Yes! That’s Gordon for you! The problem is thinking of one: national debt? global warming? school standards? Not a peep. But Athenian male citizens over 18 meeting in Assembly never had any problems about taking them, contrarian and painful as they were.


Two examples stand out. Around 483 bc, the lead mines at Laurium in Attica (Athens’s hinterland) yielded a fabulous strike of silver. The Assembly usually decided to divide it up among the citizens and make hay. But the statesman Themistocles came up with a less immediately agreeable proposal: it should be used to build a war fleet to take on Aegina, a neighbouring Greek island (‘the eyesore of Athens’), and win dominance of the sea. The Assembly saw the long-term advantages and agreed. In the event, it enabled the Athenians to repel the Persian invaders at Salamis two years later and subsequently build an empire that made them fabulously rich.

Fifty years later, war broke out between Athens and Sparta (the Peloponnesian War). Athens’s invincibility at sea, however, was matched by Sparta’s on land, and the great Athenian statesman Pericles knew that Attica could not be defended. So he proposed to the Assembly that the whole population of Attica abandon its farms and livelihood and take refuge within the security of Athens’s walls. The distress and resentment were intense — ‘it was like going into exile’ — but they did it, even though they then had to watch the invading Spartans ravage their ancestral homes, shrines and lands.

Athenians could make tough decisions like this because they were the government, with only one end in view: the national interest. They were used to making proposals, arguing, taking responsibility and living with the consequences.

But in our system, while the government’s job may be to govern, its ultimate purpose is to stay in power. Consequently, if there is a national interest to serve that will make it unpopular, it does not want to know — though there is one tough decision (just one) that Mr Brown could take that would prove a real vote-winner. And possibly win his party the next election. But that would take real courage.


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