Skip to Content

Ancient and modern

Athenians didn’t need coalition negotiations. We should learn from them

British democracy isn’t worthy of the name. Time for reform

9 May 2015

9:00 AM

9 May 2015

9:00 AM

Whatever the result of the election, it has become clearer by the day that our ‘democracy’ is run by politicians not in the interests of the dêmos but of themselves. If the polls have been right, the most egregious example is even now unfolding before our eyes: the attempts to stitch up a coalition, which will have no manifesto and, since no one has voted for it, will take power without any electoral legitimacy whatsoever. Ancient Athenians would have been appalled.

As far as Athenians were concerned, they ran the political show through their Assembly of all Athenian-born males over 18. It made all the decisions, and there was no one who was not accountable to it and it alone.


For example, any ordinary citizen who in Assembly made a proposal which was acted upon and turned out to be a disaster, could expect to be brought to trial. So too could any official who, at the end of his term of office, failed the audit of his performance. If the Assembly was unable to reach a decision on an important matter because of persuasive competing proposals, the Assembly could clear the air by ostracising, i.e. sending into honourable exile, one of the proposers.

The Assembly’s word — or whim — was law. This led Aristotle to argue that ‘a democracy of this order, being in the nature of an autocrat, becomes analogous to the tyrannical form of one-man rule’.

That describes rather well the constitutional position which today’s parties enjoy, allowing them to construct a coalition without any reference to the electorate at all —indeed, Ed Miliband’s carved six-point (h)e(a)dstone, signed by himself, not his party, gets us as close to a suppressed longing for one-man rule as anyone could wish.

So how about the parties having to invite us to choose, by a single transferable vote, the coalition we prefer? Admittedly, squaring their coalition manifestos with their original ones could be rather ticklish for the poor dears, but that is precisely why they should have to do it.


Show comments
Close