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Ancient and modern

Would Alex Salmond give up his job to a heckler? It happened in Athens

The real meaning of people power

6 September 2014

9:00 AM

6 September 2014

9:00 AM

Alex Salmond claims to be thrilled that so many people in Scotland are suddenly gripped by politics. The importance of the question before the Scots — the future of their 8.5 per cent of the United Kingdom — is only part of the reason. What really animates them is that the decision is in their hands, not Alex Salmond’s.

To see what happens when such genuine power-to-the-people is on display, consider the events of 425 BC. In their war against Sparta, the Athenians, masters of the sea, had trapped 420 Spartans on the island of Sphacteria. But it was proving difficult to get them off, and time was running out. In Assembly in Athens, the abrasive citizen Cleon (who had never held any military or other post) criticised the slowness of the operation, and turned his fire on Nicias, a senior general still in Athens, saying he (Cleon) could easily do it. Nicias told him to go ahead. Cleon agreed, thinking he did not mean it, but when he realised Nicias was serious, backtracked. The people shouted at him to put his money where his mouth was; even more so when Nicias resigned his position, handing it to Cleon. The people cheered Nicias on, and Cleon was forced to yield, adding he would complete the operation in 20 days. The people fell about: either Cleon would fail and be killed in the attempt, or succeed — win-win! The change was constitutionally validated, and the people voted to send him off.


That is what unashamed, fully engaged democratic power looks like. And, for the most part, it worked: the contrast between Athens’ extraordinary achievements as a real democracy (508–322 BC) and its later history is very telling.

Politicians regularly lament voter apathy, but if they were sincere, the Scottish (let alone ancient Greek) example would suggest that they should be keen to hand more big decisions to the public. In fact nothing appals them more. Ask George Osborne if he would resign and hand the job over to a heckler. Ask Alex.

By the way, Cleon succeeded.


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