It is generally accepted that the idea of democracy originated in the city of Athens. I am not convinced that this is true, however.  There are, even now, some tribes found in remote forests that work by consensus - i.e. democratically - rather than being subject to the diktat of a leader or a group of "potentates", and there's no reason to think that this is a modern phenomenon. But we can, I suppose, accept that the Athenians were the first occupants of a city to adopt such a system. There was, however, a recurring anxiety for the Athenians: were the people in fact hopeless at making decisions, incapable of intelligent consideration? Were they instead all too easily influenced by spurious arguments and manipulated by unscrupulous rhetoricians hungry for power?  After all, Boris is not a new phenomenon.  In Athens, of course, unlike us they had direct, rather than representative, democracy, even though the electorate was limited to free adult men.  Slaves, foreigners and women were not included.

Greek history was not taught in my school but, according to an article in the journal, Prospect, it seems that a particularly significant event for democracy occurred in 427 BC, during the Peloponnesian wars against Sparta. The Athenians were stuck in a debate about what to do about the city of Mytilene which they had just conquered. After attempting to rebel against its alliance with Athens, this rich city of Lesbos had been defeated by a force under the Athenian general Paches. Persuaded by the hawkish politician Cleon, the Athenian electorate voted to kill all the men of the city and enslave all women and children. In the absence of e-mail, the fastest form of communication - a trireme - was sent to Lesbos to inform the Athenian troops of the decision.

But within a day there had been a change of mind amongst the intellectuals of Athens. Was it really the right thing to do? A second debate therefore took place the following day. Cleon spoke again in favour of the decision already made. "As a general rule, states are better governed by the man in the street than by intellectuals," he said. Then another speaker, Diodotus, who did not directly disagree on this point, but who spoke in favour of reconsideration, urged citizens to rethink their decision: "I do not criticize those who have proposed reconsideration of our decision on the Mythilaenians, and have no sympathy with those who oppose more debates on matters of great importance. In my opinion, the two biggest obstacles to good decision making are hurry and anger", he said, the vote was agonisingly close but produced a different result.

A second trireme was sent to Lesbos. It had the task of overtaking the first ship, which had a one and a half day advantage, and so the rowers were offered energy snacks (barley flour mixed with wine and olive oil) and enough rowers to enable them to have teams, taking turns sleeping and rowing.  Even so, they did not overtake the first vessel, and so Paches received the original decree and prepared to complete the massacre. But just in the nick of time, the second ship in fact arrived, carrying with it the result of the second vote. Mass murder was avoided. A second referendum, with a more thoughtful approach, can be an excellent idea.

Obviously, what is only an analogy, an apparent parallel, cannot be considered definitive when making a decision in different times. When looked at in more detail, it could be found that it is not in fact a true parallel. And when we consider that it's a story based on what someone wrote 2,500 years ago, it's a bit difficult to be sure of the details - and this despite the belief that people with a classic education, including Boris, apparently have in the works of Homer, etc.  Nor can we discount the fact that, almost by definition, those who want to have a second referendum are those who lost the first time round. Those who are against a second appeal to the people say: "How many referendums must we have? Would it be the best of three, of five?”. We can’t even say that the decision to leave the EU was taken quickly. We can say that we didn’t consider the true consequences, and that our 'intellectuals' were guilty of not providing us with vital information.   But any political decision can be criticized for the same reason. After any election we could reasonably request a second vote when, as seems inevitable, the elected government does not act in accordance with its manifesto. The system is much less than perfect.

I am therefore not convinced that I can support the argument for a second referendum in the current circumstances. This does not mean that I would completely exclude it. We are in a position where our parliament does not have a majority for any of the possible lines of action. The Conservative party is very divided, the Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalists have all decided to pursue their own interests and the Labour party has decided to request a new general election. We do not know what the consequences would be if as seems likely, a hard Brexit were the result. Corbyn and McDonnell's very own newspaper, “The Morning Star”, tells us however that the communist party, and so by implication the labour party leaders, is opposed to the EU and therefore a second referendum. Why? As I have speculated in the past, it is because continuing in the EU: "...would keep our country aligned with EU rules regarding state aid, competition and public procurement". This explains why Corbyn has shown so much reluctance for the concept of the 'People's Vote'. I am not convinced, however, that his party is behind him. The opinion polls tells us that he’s very much in a minority amongst his supposed supporters.

So then, in the absence of a decision by Parliament, perhaps there will be another Diodotus to persuade us of the benefit of asking the people to reconsider.  Who might that be?

Paul Buckingham

November 2018

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