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Ancient and modern

Athenian democracy vs Cameron’s referendum

25 May 2013

9:00 AM

25 May 2013

9:00 AM

So Mr Cameron is offering us the faintest prospect of a referendum on the EU. Ancient Athenians would have laughed him to scorn.

Meeting in the Assembly roughly every week, Athenian males over the age of 18 decided all Athenian public policy. But since there were thousands of them, who could hardly just turn up and decide what to discuss on the spot, the day’s agenda was prepared for them by the Council. This consisted of 500 Athenian males over 30, drawn by lot from those who put themselves forward. Each councillor served for one year only, and could never serve for more than two. One of the Council’s main functions was to receive business, determine if it needed action, and if it did, put it in the shape of a motion for the Assembly to debate. Socrates served as a councillor; we hear of him preventing a highly emotional Assembly from passing a decree, because it was illegal.


The motions put by the Council to the Assembly could take one of two formats: a precise form of words (‘the Assembly should decree that…’), or a question (‘The Assembly should discuss what to do about…’). But in all cases, it was the controlling principle of Athenian democracy that the Assembly was sovereign. If the Assembly did not like what the Council had proposed, it could throw it out, amend it, put forward an entirely different version or ask the Council to do so.

Politicians and chatterati, of course, abhor such ‘populist’ politics. But when one considers what the Athenian people could have done — agreed pensions for life, debt abolition and redistribution of land, seized the wealth of the rich, executed the aristocrats — it may suggest that if you give the people such Council-guided responsibility, they will rise to it. So what do we get? An EU referendum (i) in four years’ time, (ii) only if Cameron is returned, and (iii) only if we wring concessions out of Brussels. But if Brussels remains obdurate, then no referendum. But surely the whole point… oh, forget it. Cameron’s contempt for us is thoroughly reciprocated.


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