Democracy: Whose idea was this?

People power is messy – just ask a British politician. But they're in good company. Even the Ancient Greeks who invented democracy couldn't agree on what it meant, writes Paul Vallely

It was such a good line that the politicians kept on repeating it throughout Thursday night as though they had just made it up, although Bill Clinton is widely reckoned to have coined it first in the chaotic aftermath of the 2000 US presidential election. "The people have spoken: we're just not sure what they've said."

They would have had no such trouble in the great cradle of democracy, ancient Greece, where, nearly 2,500 years ago, the great Athenian general Pericles coined the phrase about the government of the nation being "in the hands of the many and not the few". After five days of a handful of Liberal Democrat, Conservative and Labour politicians sequestering themselves behind closed doors, attempting to stitch up private deals over the future of the nation, you could be forgiven for wondering whether what we have can be called a democracy at all.

They did things differently in Athens two millennia ago. England may be referred to as the "mother of parliaments" in the words of another great phrasemaker, John Bright, in 1865. But it was Greece where the concept of "government by the people" was born, nurtured and brought to its greatest blossoming.

Indeed in the 5th century BC there was not one democracy but hundreds among the city-states which were scattered round the Mediterranean and Black Sea shores – "like frogs around a pond", as Plato once engagingly put it. But of these the oldest, the most stable, the most long-lived, the most well-documented but also the most radical, was Athens.

But before recommending that our politicians go rushing off for Attic refreshment of 21st century British polity, it is worth comparing the circumstances of ancient Athens with our own. For, as Aristotle concluded 100 years into the Athenian democracy experiment, if you compare monarchy, aristocracy and democracy what you find is that all three can work badly or well. It is the size, economy and physical character of a state which determines what will be its best constitution.

What allowed democracy to flourish in Athens was the state of its economy. In the 5th century BC the trade in wine and olives allowed the Greeks to rise above self-sufficiency. But external conflicts abounded; Athens was at war, on average, for three years out of every four over almost two centuries. More than that, the latest military technology was the trireme, the fast warship of the time, whose three banks of oars needed lots of men to row them.

Suddenly the ordinary citizens who made up the crews of a fleet of warships found political strength. In the years around 450 BC the populist Athenian general Pericles presided over a radicalisation of power that shifted the balance decisively to the poorest sections of society. This was the heart of the classical Greece which built the Parthenon, staged Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, and laid the foundations of Western philosophical and critical thought.

It was also the place which developed effective political rhetoric to a fine art, as Gordon Brown reminded us in the barnstorming speech in which he rediscovered his political identity, too late, a couple of days before the election. The soon-to-be outgoing Prime Minister compared the Roman orator Cicero with his Greek predecessor Demosthenes, whom another Roman called the lex orandi. Mr Brown – borrowing from Adlai Stevenson's introduction of John F Kennedy in 1960 – said that when Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, "Great speech", but when Demosthenes had finished speaking, they said, "Let's march". (Revealingly there is another version of the quote in David Ogilvy's Confessions of an Advertising Man.)

But then all Athens was set up for marching – from the Pnyx, the flat-topped hill where the assembly of all the citizens, the ekklesia, met four times a month. In those days some 300,000 people lived in Athens. But if you stripped out the women, children, foreigners, debtors, freed slaves and slaves that left just 20 per cent of the population who were deemed citizens. In this most direct form of democracy every man could not just vote, all had equal power. On major occasions –like declaring war, granting citizenship, making an important law or trying political crimes – as many as 6,000 citizens attended. But they went further. The agenda of the ekklesia, and part of the implementation of its decisions, was in the hands of a council called the boule, a body of 500 men who were chosen – by lot – from the ekklesia. They served for just one year. Magistrates, inspectors of weights and measures, and others, were also chosen by lot. Only jobs requiring special skills, like being a general or a treasurer, were elected.

This was true democracy, in which it was reckoned that anyone ought to be able to do almost any job. The boule was chaired by a different person each day – again chosen by lot. It has been estimated that the role of epitaste – who chaired the council, held the keys to the treasury and the seal to the city, and welcomed foreign ambassadors – must have been held by around a quarter of all citizens in their lifetime.

The preference for allotment over election was based on the assumption that the ordinary man would be more representative of the opinions and interests of the general population than some career politician. British politics long ago abandoned that concept. Politicians like Brown, Cameron and Clegg have all done very little with their careers apart from party politics. Selection by lottery also guarded against corruption and election campaigning which favours the rich and powerful over the ordinary citizen.

There were, of course, factors peculiar to Athens which allowed the development of such direct democracy. The economy was strong. Constant war produced a ready supply of slaves to do most of the work which gave citizens the leisure to participate in government. The population was so small that politics could be a face-to-face business in which everyone was involved.

Even so it was big enough for there to be class conflict between well-off landowners and poorer craftsman, sailors and small traders – which is why the ancient philosophers gave so much thought as to the ideal form of government.

The choice was seen to be between three basic options. The first was rule by one man (monarchy when he was good, tyranny when he was bad). The second was rule by the few (aristocracy, which means rule by the best, or oligarchy, rule by the few, if you didn't like the way they were doing it). And the third was rule by the many (democracy, from demos, meaning people, and kratia, after Kratos, the mythic personification of strength and power).

Democracy was an ambiguous term. Some classical thinkers used it approvingly, contrasting it with ochlocracy which meant the rule of the mob. Others, like Aristotle, used democracy pejoratively, preferring the word "polity" for the rule of the people where it was governed by a sense of the common good rather than narrow self-interest or the passion of the mob – an English term derived from the phrase "mobile vulgus" meaning "the fickle crowd".

Even in its purest form Athenian democracy was something of a hybrid. By electing its generals and treasurers it valued the special skills of the few as well as the participation of the many.

Some modern thinkers go further. They have argued that democracy is illusory, and serves only to mask the reality of elite rule. Oligarchy, they say, is the basic law of human nature – because the masses are both apathetic and unable to delay their gratification. By contrast, the educated elite were seen as having drive, initiative and – whatever their political opinions – many shared assumptions and interests. Indeed it could be argued that election is, by definition, an oligarchical practice, whereas lottery assumes that all citizens are competent enough to rule.

Modern representative democracies, like Britain's, are as much about oligarchy as people power. "Whoever you vote for, it's the politicians who get in," as the demotic quip has it.

But then democracy was something of a dirty word even in among the ancient Greeks. Their key thinkers were, to say the least, ambivalent about the system. Aristotle who, in the fourth century BC, pronounced that "man is by nature a political animal", saw the flaws. He followed his predecessor Plato in criticising democracy as a poor form of government.

Plato had a personal axe to grind. He was a disciple of the first great Greek philosopher Socrates who was executed by a democracy. In those days teachers of rhetoric saw their job as developing the oratorical and argumentative skills needed for participation in democratic politics. Socrates disagreed. He opposed their emphasis on technical skills and argumentative success; he saw thinking as being about the discovery of the truth.

Though he was not antipathetic to democracy his followers included Critias, one of the most violent of the Thirty Tyrants whose regime preceded the restoration of democracy, an association which did not endear Socrates to the Athenian public. In 399BC he was put on trial – a process which he compared to a doctor being prosecuted by a pastry chef before a jury of children – and sentenced to drink hemlock for "corrupting the young and believing in strange gods".

Perhaps understandably Plato concluded that the ideal state was an intellectual aristocracy presided over by philosophers. Democracy, by considering the ignorant to be as important as the well-informed, does not guarantee sensible decisions. Instead the public exaggerate their praise for what they think is good and their condemnation of what they see as bad. Democracy thus corrupts ordinary people and creates rulers who see their most important skill as knowing how to influence the "beast" which is demos, the public. And he had never met Peter Mandelson or Andy Coulson.

Aristotle also concluded that rulers should be propertied and leisured so, without other worries, they could invest their time in producing virtue. Labourers were too busy for that king of thing. Until recently British politicians felt happy to voice much the same attitude. The Duke of Wellington said sourly, on viewing the assembled MPs at the first parliament after the 1832 Reform Act, that he had never seen "so many shocking bad hats".

And the Whig historian Lord Macaulay, who was first elected in that parliament, foresaw that fully universal suffrage would bring a collapse of civilised values. Democracy cannot work without freedom of political expression, freedom of speech and freedom of the press, so that citizens are informed in their voting. But anyone who read The Sun during the election campaign might wonder whether Macauley may have been right. "You taught me language; and my profit on it is I know how to curse," as Caliban famously said.

Certainly what is clear in Britain this week is that voters' choices about what is right for them as individuals do not necessarily aggregate to what is best for the community. Self-interest can indeed head to public myopia or ignorance. Democracy, as Aristotle opined, can be a form of tyranny (though the phrase "tyranny of the majority" does not arise until the post-revolutionary French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America). At its best, Plato said, democracy is too weak to do much good and at its worst too weak to do much harm – and he knew nothing of the paralysis of a hung parliament.

Later Western conceptions of democracy have, of course, shifted significantly in more recent centuries. Earlier in the Christian era the dominant political paradigm was kingship, much as God as King of Kings was the dominant theological framework. But with the interaction between the classical and Christian philosophical mindsets, which occurred with the Renaissance, a synthesis occurred. The theological notion of every individual being made in the image of God, and the philosophical insights about reason, freedom and tolerance, strengthened the impetus to democracy.

But they also corrected some of democracy's deficiencies with the notion of human rights setting boundaries on the ability of the majority to tyrannise minorities. Just because everyone was in favour of something didn't make it right, a tendency which Pope John Paul II condemned as "majoritarianism". The world's first anarchist, Proudhon, argued that majority decisions must not be binding on the minority in an acceptable direct democracy. And that the smallest minority on earth is the individual, as the libertarian right-winger Ayn Rand pointed out.

Such an odd coalition of political thinkers throws up another interesting question. To what extent do moral assumptions underlie political systems? Power and morality are generally distinct and separate classes of thinking. Power seems to imply virtue, as Aristotle noted, but such an inference is false, he adds; superior power does not mean moral superiority. Might is not always right, even if modern mantras like "We the People" are in effect a claim of morality and an assertion of right. Yet that does not answer the more technical question which Britain is facing this week which is: how do you best articulate the voice of the people?

In Britain we have long been wedded to the concept of political parties, groupings of strategic alliances from which dissent is not normative. One of the things that this election has thrown up is the artificial and arbitrary nature of the package deals of policies each party has on offer. Leaders acknowledge that when they offer concessions while negotiating a coalition.

In part this election has been about personality as much as policy. The ground for debate has been questions of trust and competence in many areas – like health and education – with ideological difference only on issues like immigration and nuclear weapons. And on Trident, as with the economy, the issue is as more about pace and timing than radical differences of direction. Parties have been a necessary or convenient evil; the politics of coalition calls that rigidity into question somewhat.

Winston Churchill's grudging defence of democracy was that it was the worst form of government apart from all the others. It may be that democracy is more valuable for what it prevents than what it creates. Whether Athens offers us much by way of help is a moot point. Many Athenians who had the right to rule chose not to for practical reasons, as well as those of temperament or disposition. It would have taken farmers in the country a whole day to walk to Athens, attend the ekklesia and walk back. Even a man with plenty of slaves (and one in three residents of the city-state were slaves at one point) this would be to lose too much valuable working time. There are more ways of disenfranchising people than slamming the polling station doors shut in their face at 10pm. It is intriguing, for example, that there have been no women present at any of the Liberal Democrat, Conservative or Labour power-broking negotiating teams.

But there are other factors. Athens had the culture of the active citizen. In Britain, despite David Cameron's talk of the big society, we have sleepwalked into the culture of the passive consumer. Our voting system means that many seats are so safe that the votes of most electors can never determine the outcome of who governs Britain. Change is made by a few score thousand voters in a handful of marginal seats. The prospect of the internet and interactive television bringing us an e-democracy with more direct components is hardly inspiring in our shallow media-manipulated sensationalist times.

There is perhaps one thing that we might still learn from ancient Athens. The most dramatic example of 5th-century direct democracy is the system known as ostracism. Under it each citizen writes one name on a broken shard of pottery (an ostrakon). If a massive number write the same name the ostracised individual had to go into exile for 10 years.

There are no prizes for guessing whose name was on the shard for the overwhelming number of Conservative and Liberal Democrat voters – and even a goodly number of Labour supporters who felt prospects of a Lib-Lab coalition would be enhanced by their party having a new leader. Perhaps Gordon Brown's recent foray into classical studies taught him that he was better choosing to exile himself before it was forced upon him.

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