Peter Jones

How the Athenians would have handled the Lords

How the Athenians would have handled the Lords
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Arguments about the purpose or indeed very existence of anything resembling the House of Lords would have struck classical democratic Athenians as bizarre. But its Areopagus might prompt thought.

This body had been in existence long before Cleisthenes invented radical democracy in 508 bc. It was made up of the wealthy aristocratic elite from whom alone the main state officials (archons) could be drawn. Their term of office completed, they joined the Areopagus for life. This body was the state’s legal guardian. The democratic reformer Solon (594 bc) slightly broadened its membership, and removed some of its political powers. Cleisthenes, whose reforms turned the Athenian people meeting in assembly into Athens’ both political and legal sovereign body, left it (surprisingly) untouched. Then in 467 bc most of the Areopagus’ legal powers were removed, leaving it primarily to deal with (still important) religious issues. That was the final nail in the coffin of Athens’ oldest body, though future generations sometimes contemplated its partial resurrection, especially during political crises.

This left the Athenian citizens in total control, ensuring that all decisions about peace, war and everything else could not be made by a minority against the wishes of the majority. What is more, two absolutely central planks of Athens’ democracy were: (i) most officials were appointed by lot after a process of preselection, and (ii) these positions were rotated among the citizens. Virtually all offices (about 400) could be held for one year only and never again; while the steering committee to the assembly, consisting of 500 citizens, could not serve more than twice. With a citizen body of about 50,000, most would have served in some role or other, and all in the military. So ingrained was this concept of personal political responsibility that anyone, however well-meaning, who disagreed with an assembly decision could be accused of being unpatriotic.

If, then, we were to apply Athenian principles to the Lords, it should under no circumstances threaten the democratically elected sovereign parliament; its remit must be restricted; and its membership selected by lot (after pre-selection), and rotated.