As Ancient Athenian democracy is the cornerstone of our own, we should expect to have similarities and learn from the Athenians. Athenian democracy was direct, so each decision was made by roughly 6000 people, male of course, collected in a group on the Pnyx where a simple raise of the hand could start a war.
Nowadays our system is slightly different. It is a system of which Socrates would approve; we vote for people who vote on our behalf; people who are more equipped to understand the nitty-gritty of our politics — or at least they should be.
But when a referendum is called we all unknowingly invoke our primordial Athenian selves. We troop down to the voting centre and cast a ballot which may have a more direct impact than we realise.
Just under 2500 years ago, the city-state of Mytilene revolted in an attempt to rid themselves of their ‘alliance’ with Athens. They were unsuccessful and the Athenian assembly were left with the task of punishment. The assembly hurriedly voted and sentenced all the males to death while all women and children were to be sold into slavery.
But the very next day, public opinion had swayed. Athenians realised how brutal the sentence was, and how misinformed they had been about the situation (sounds familiar …). The assembly was recalled and Diodotus’ argument prevailed — ‘haste and anger are … the two greatest obstacles to wise counsel …’.
My imagination runs wild at the thought of the following events when the votes were recast, now in opposition to mass genocide. I imagine one man in a little rowboat frantically paddling after the massive trireme with its mission of bloodshed; the man running screaming ‘STOP!’, heroically saving the day just before the swords came down on the backs of the Mytilenian men. It was probably a little more civilised, but let me have my fun.
The term ‘anti-democratic’ gets tossed around a lot in discussions of a second Brexit referendum, with few people knowing its definition. But first we must question what is the true definition of democracy. Democracy now is different in many ways to our ancestors’ concept of it, and one need only have a basic idea of American democracy to know it is very distinct from the UK’s. It is an evolving discipline.
At the same time many of democracy’s tenets remain the same, today ‘haste‘ and ‘anger’ blind the modern voter as it did the ancient. The UK voted for a hurriedly drawn up Brexit, and now we are stagnating in a pool of mistakes in a country which has not progressed for two years.
‘But … the law?’ people cry. A referendum is not legally binding, and Article 50 does not explicitly state whether it can be revoked, it is open to interpretation.
MPs were able to reconsider their decision for May as Prime Minister in the vote of no confidence in December, yet to ask the people if they have changed their mind on Brexit would be an ‘affront to democracy’. Let’s take a page from the book of our ancestors; let’s swallow our pride and embarrassment at the resources that have been wasted on Brexit for the past two years. After all, sending an army to execute half a city-state would not have been a drop in the bucket for the Athenians.
To change one’s mind is only ‘anti-democratic’ apparently when it suits the people up top.
Democracy is derived from the Greek terms ‘dēmos’ (‘people’) and ‘kratos’ (‘rule’), so we can all agree democracy, at its purest definition, is ‘the people make decisions’. Surely when public opinion has changed so dramatically, another vote would be inherently more democratic?
It’s time to accept that humans really don’t change much in 2500 years. We still make rash decisions with fiery temperaments. But it’s how we deal with the ramifications that matter. Our ancestors realised the value of a second referendum, and so must we. Let’s live out Percy Shelley’s belief that ‘we are all Greeks’.