Peter Jones

Mob law

The mob is fickle. Mob law is no law at all

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Frenzied outrage from Leavers and comical paeans of praise from Remainers greeted the High Court’s decision to instruct government that Parliament had to agree to the triggering of the clause that will initiate the UK’s exit from the European Union.

In 406 BC, the Athenians demonstrated just how dangerous such hysterical reactions could be.

The Athenians had defeated the Spartans in a sea battle off Arginousai, with the loss of 25 ships. Against all usual practice, their sailors had been left to drown, either because a storm had made it impossible to pick them up, or those in charge were at fault. The eight generals were dismissed, and six of them returned to Athens. They were ‘remanded in custody’, and the matter referred to the sovereign Assembly (all male citizens over 18).

At the first hearing, when the severity of the storm was the key issue, no decision was reached. At the next hearing, sentiment seems to have hardened, and it was proposed that, all the evidence having been heard, the Assembly should vote at once on a capital charge applying to all the generals en bloc. This proposal was challenged, on the grounds that it was illegal: the generals had to be tried individually. There was uproar: ‘and the majority of citizens shouted out that it was monstrous if anyone did not allow the Assembly to do whatever it wanted’.

The presiding body caved in — with the exception of Socrates, who said that he would approve nothing that was illegal. It made no difference: the six were found guilty as a group and executed. Two months later, the Athenians changed their minds.

If we want mob rule in the UK, then hysterical ‘win-lose’ reactions to a legal judgment, as typified by the Cleggs and Farages of this world, is the way to do it. Meanwhile, if anyone wants to bring a charge of corruption against a judge, they are entitled to do so. And if anyone wants to change the law, Parliament awaits your proposal.

— Peter Jones