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Ancient and modern

Imperial Athens and imperial Brussels

8 June 2013

9:00 AM

8 June 2013

9:00 AM

Last week Matthew Parris argued that Ukip was ‘extremist’ because its supporters thought of the EU’s ‘methods, despotism and oppression of them and their daily lives as barely distinguishable from those of the Soviet Union’. All right, if Mr Parris insists; but not all ‘despots’ are like Stalin.

We entered the EU voluntarily, but as this column noted a few weeks ago, Athens quickly turned a voluntary agreement among Greeks in 478 BC to keep the Persians at bay into something like a tyranny under Athenian control. In 429 BC Pericles acknowledged this, arguing that Athens had no option but to continue down that path ‘because of the danger from those whose hatred you have incurred in gaining your empire… which you now possess like a tyranny. It may be thought wrong to have acquired it, but to let it go would be extremely dangerous.’


For Aristotle, the tyrant came in only two varieties: the tyrant who ensured that the people could never move against him, and the tyrant who wished no less to maintain his power over those who did and did not want to be ruled by him — ‘his permanent, fundamental principle’ — but did so by different means, eg. by behaving more like a responsible household manager, coming across as a faithful trustee of public resources, living a life of moderation, and keeping both rich and poor reconciled to each other. In other words, a tyrant does not have to be tyrannical, but is still a tyrant — a benevolent one.

Or is the EU more like that other one-man ruler, a monarch? Aristotle defined monarchs in terms of four main criteria: (a) being subject to the law, (b) holding office for ever, or merely for a set term, (c) being elected or not, and (d) ruling willing subjects. How does the EU shape up under these headings? Would that make a better analogy?

The problem with Mr Parris’s or the Ukip supporters’ Soviet Union comparison is that is closes off the real debate about the EU. It is transparently not like the Soviet Union, but it equally transparently exerts a quite unacceptable level of control in certain areas which, like Pericles, it feels it would be dangerous to let go. That is the issue.


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