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Ancient and modern

Ancient & modern

Paul Johnson recently wrote about the use of Athenian-style ostracism to send bores of one’s choice into exile.

12 May 2010

12:00 AM

12 May 2010

12:00 AM

Paul Johnson recently wrote about the use of Athenian-style ostracism to send bores of one’s choice into exile.

Paul Johnson recently wrote about the use of Athenian-style ostracism to send bores of one’s choice into exile. The device would better serve a hung parliament.


The point about Athenian ostracism is that it was not a random way of exiling anyone that any Athenian felt like, at any time. Had that been the case, Athens would have been emptied very quickly. It was purely political. Just once a year, the question was put to the sovereign decision-making assembly (all Athenian male citizens over 18) whether they wanted an ostracism. To judge from the very few that actually took place, it seems mostly to have been triggered when the assembly felt that its very existence was threatened (e.g. by advocates of tyranny) or its ability to reach important conclusion hampered by strong, rival factions. It was not, in other words, a judicial but an administrative act. The person so ostracised lost no property or rights; he was just asked not to come back for ten years.

But then the system failed. When the Athenians were discussing the invasion of Sicily (415 bc), there were deep divisions between the pro faction (youthful Alcibiades) and the anti (cagey Nicias). One Hyperbolus therefore proposed an ostracism, expecting (according to the historian Plutarch) that he would be a match for the one left standing. But Alcibiades and Nicias joined forces, and Hyperbolus was ostracised! It was never deployed again.

The relevance of the device to a hung parliament is obvious. The point of elections is to allow us our only chance to say who should govern us. It is clear that on this occasion, however, we do not want one party to do so. But we did not thereby give the major parties the right to engage in horse-trading: it is our right to choose our government, not theirs. So we should have the right, in a hung parliament, to vote immediately on which of the parties (from the three with the most seats) should not be permitted to help form the parliamentary majority. This ostracism would, for the life of the parliament, metaphorically exile from power whichever party we chose, and compel the others to get on with it. The people will have spoken.

Dream on.


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