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Ancient and modern

Is David Cameron trying to imitate the Delphic Oracle?

If not, he should make his EU referendum promise a little clearer

5 April 2014

9:00 AM

5 April 2014

9:00 AM

Nigel Farage rather missed a trick in his debate over the EU with Nick Clegg. The Prime Minister has promised us an ‘In/Out’ referendum on the EU in 2017, if the Tories are returned to power. But there is a condition: the referendum will be held (his words) ‘When we have negotiated a new settlement…’ (23 January 2013). The problem is that word ‘When’. Does he really mean ‘If’? As it stands, Cameron’s ‘promise’ has all the hallmarks of the Delphic Oracle.

Take poor old Croesus, king of Lydia. The historian Herodotus tells us that he asked the oracle what would happen if he fought the Persian king Cyrus. ‘You will destroy a great empire,’ it replied. Croesus was overjoyed, but cannily followed it up by asking if his reign would be a long one. ‘When a mule is king of Persia, run for your life,’ came the answer. That seemed to settle the issue.


Croesus took on Cyrus and was duly defeated. Made captive, he sent to the oracle to ask what on earth it was up to. The oracle replied that to the first prophecy he should have enquired ‘Which empire?’ and on the second should have reflected that Cyrus was the mule in question, being the son of parents of different races — a noble Mede mother, but a base-born Persian father. Herodotus goes on: ‘When the reply was reported to Croesus, he admitted that the god was innocent and he had only himself to blame.’ As the sixth-century BC philosopher Heraclitus said of the god of the oracle, ‘he neither speaks nor hides: he uses signs’ — and we have to make sense of them.

It would clear the air, then, if Mr Cameron immediately rephrased what sounds more like a prediction than a promise into the form ‘whatever that new settlement may be, and especially if the EU offers no new settlement at all’. Only then will we be able to believe that it could actually happen. Otherwise, like Croesus, we will have only ourselves to blame.

And if we vote no, we will, in the time-honoured tradition, carry on voting until we vote yes. No? Mr Cameron?


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