Peter Jones

People power then and now

Why doesn’t our Prime Minister try the art of persuasion, instead of issuing threats?

It does seem extraordinary that the increasingly puce-faced Mr Cameron offered us an ‘in-out’ referendum and is now telling us that ‘out’ would mean the end of the world as we know it. What on earth did he think he was doing? His reaction is to eviscerate MPs who support ‘out’, and intentionally deprive us who will actually make the decision of information enabling us to do so. People power is clearly not for him.

One of the great virtues of 5th-century bc Athenian direct democracy was that those who made the policy decisions were citizens meeting weekly in Assembly. Parties did not exist. So there were no such things as party policies, party positions (Clause 4s and so on), or party members, let alone MPs. There were no ‘election manifestos’ because there were no elections. The business of every Assembly was prepared by a steering committee of citizens, again elected by lot for one year. The Assembly could reject or amend any of its proposals. When it came to appointing officials, any Athenian male citizen over 30 who wanted to could put himself forward for selection — by lot.

So who were the ‘politicians’? In theory, anyone who stood up to try to persuade the Assembly to take this or that course of action. Plato said that on technical matters, e.g. ship-building, the Assembly would listen only to experts. On general policy, anyone would have a say. But inevitably those who were in positions of power — military commanders or ambassadors or those active in the courts — dominated proceedings. Nevertheless, the only power they had was one of persuasion. Masters

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