Peter Jones

Osborne and the Athenians

Honour and applause went to those who served the public interest

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As a result of George Osborne taking up five jobs on top of his role as MP for Tatton, an ethics watchdog wants to know what the public thinks about MPs having other jobs. One problem is that people’s low opinion of MPs makes balanced judgment difficult. The same was true in the ancient world.

There were no ‘parties’ with ‘policies’ in democratic Athens, only ‘speakers’ (the equivalent of our ‘politicians’) at the weekly Assemblies, often holding some office, and attempting to persuade the listening citizens to vote for their solution to whatever problem the Assembly was facing. Comic poets obviously laid into them, characterising them all as ‘robbers’ and ‘blackmailers’, ‘shameless’ and greedy for bribes, contrasting them with past generations, who had been ‘frugal’ and ‘self-denying’, men of action, not fancy talkers. Speakers equally laid into other speakers, presenting themselves as innocents in the dirty world of politics, while their opponents were hardened deceivers, ‘artists in words’ and ‘concocters of arguments’. One speaker said: ‘In the past, you (the Assembly) were master of the politicians … now the opposite is true, and you have become a sort of servant and appendage of theirs.’

Precisely: such is the prejudice which MPs like Osborne face. So how did Athenians deal with it? The people they applauded were those commemorated on the thousands of inscriptions set up in honour of those who poured their own efforts and resources into serving the public interest. As Aristotle said, personal outlay relating to gods, offerings, buildings and sacrifices gained a man honour, as well as ‘those [outlays] which are a mark of proper ambition for the good of the community’. Indeed, one speaker even argued that bribes were acceptable ‘on condition that they furthered and did not oppose the public good’!

On these principles, the ethics watchdog might wonder if Osborne’s editorship of the London Evening Standard (say) would be likely to be recognised with a public monument for services to the community, raised by proud inhabitants of his Cheshire constituency. After all, those are the people to whom he owes his first duty as their MP.