Opinion Articles

Referendums Ancient and Modern

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The past has come back to bite us, or so it may now seem, as we in the UK labour through yet another referendum – on remaining within/leaving the EU. But what about the very concept of a referendum.  How – that is, to what extent as well as in what way(s) – is it ‘democratic’? If – as in our present case, and that of Greece in July 2015 (the snap ‘bailout’ referendum) – the result is binding, then it would seem to be wholly democratic, in the original ancient Greek sense of ‘People-power’, the People being those entitled and empowered to vote, and the outcome being decided by a simple majority responding to a ‘yes’/’no’ question. But, if so, why then don’t we have a whole lot more referendums, if we really think that democracy, any ‘democracy’ worth the name, is a form of people-power?

First, there’s the factor of prohibitive cost that applies to any ‘general election’ or equivalent procedure. But more fundamentally there’s the fact that such exercises in direct democracy go flat counter to the very essence of modern – as opposed to ancient – democracy. Modern democracy is representative, and not in fact the direct democracy of ancient Greece. We the People do not actually rule but periodically choose representatives to rule for us – instead of us as well as, we hope and trust, in our interests.. Calling a referendum therefore signals not the success but the breakdown of ‘normal’ democratic politics. The Greek bailout case and our EU case magnificently demonstrate that axiom.

Compare – or rather contrast – the ancient Athenian way of doing democratic politics, which for them was life itself, a matter of common culture, not of mere operational practicality. By the mid-fourth century BC(E) the Athenians held an Assembly, government by mass meeting, every nine days or so. On the agenda of every ‘principal’ Assembly meeting (the first of the four held every civil month) were such absolutely fundamental issues as relations with the gods; state security; and the overseas supply of wheat (especially from the Crimea and Ukraine). This was for them normal politics, but of course the ordinary members of the Assembly – those who were able and willing to turn up in central Athens, usually 6000 or so, or roughly one fifth of those formally qualified – could not decide such deep matters entirely by themselves. At the meeting itself, they listened in the open air to the arguments and counter-arguments of just a few, typically prominent and well-known speakers (‘speakers’ was an Athenian word for ‘politicians’) and, critically, they decided between them – by mass vote taken by a show of hands. Not just operational matters but matters of principle – who should or should not be a citizen, whether or not to make a or break an alliance – were so decided.

However, if there was sufficient feeling that an error or even a crime had been committed in and by the Assembly, then there were the People’s jury courts to act as a brake on demagogic self-promotion or to offer the chance of delivering a considered second opinion on a measure. But above all and behind all – and some think that this is really the true kingpin of the whole system – there was the Boule or Council of 500, the Assembly’s steering committee and chief administrative body of the state. This annually recruited body, like the annual panel of 6000 jurors in the People’s courts, was filled by the use of the lottery, not by election. The lot was, democrats believed, the democratic way to fill public offices: it was random, gave all qualified adult male citizens an equal chance of selection and so encouraged them to throw their hats in the ring, to step up to the plate and do their public civic duty.

Government by referendum suited the ancient Athenians. Whether it’s a useful add-on to, or a flagrant contradiction of, our democracy – that’s a matter on which we the electorate should have been asked to give our decisive view but, our democracy being as it is, merely representative (in fact it would look like a creeping, crypto-oligarchy to the ancient Greeks – and many today may be coming to a similar conclusion), we were not.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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