Am Bratach No. 246
April 2012


Martin Morrison
bares gifts from the Greeks

The Ancient Greeks’ big idea has been much in the news lately. Whether it is genuinely under threat or merely seems so in this age of 24/7 rolling news, exactly what it is and what we can reasonably expect it to achieve are other matters entirely, but democracy itself is the talk of the steamie.

It could be worse. By and large, when we’re talking, we’re not hitting each other, a bad habit of ours. Nobody bores people with such matters in Saudi Arabia or China, not if they know what’s bad for them.

By whatever benchmarks we might agree on as to what democracy should at least strive to be, the old beast is having a rough time, its patience stretched at every turn. Many know the feeling, these days.

Putin has just guaranteed Russian democracy until 2024; under him, naturally. Assad is imposing his own patent ruthlessly in Syria. Despite much untethered excitement last year, the Middle East and North Africa do not seem to be getting the hang of it. American democracy is simply too nauseating to bear. There’s been much chatter about our own lately, too. Nobody seems entirely happy. But it’s not democracy’s fault.

Banks and ratings agencies now dictate economic policy. Governments who don’t roll over are rolled over. In Greece and Italy, they appointed their own men – austerity obsessed millionaire international bankers both. The “safe hands” already had the US, UK, and most of Europe on message. This is not democracy, it is plutocracy. Protest at this abomination in Greece is met with baton rounds and tear gas. It’s unsurprising that our governments decline to comment; a few dozen students armed with nothing more substantial than smart-phones and unfeasible notions of entitlement is considered sufficient “unrest” to deploy 500 of the Met’s finest for a spot of suspiciously well-rehearsed kettling.

Our increasingly hog-tied elected representation continues to parade worn out, failed ideologies in jurisdictions rendered almost meaningless by globalisation unless somebody has loot they’d sooner wasn’t taxed. Instead of the Middle East, why don’t we invade the Cayman Islands and Switzerland? In all fairness, most of the world has seen its fair share of war. The Swiss have capitalised on their famed “neutrality” for 500 years. This is where wealth has gone into hiding for so long; see, Churchill and The Gnomes of Zurich. As supposedly impoverished Western countries still see a need for defence strategies and budgets predicated on the Cold War, this would be a safer option than Iran and highly profitable as well, as ill-gotten gains could be repatriated. It’d be bloodless, too — I doubt the Swiss would put up a fight.

No matter what, though, no politician is going to say that democracy is a bad idea – even though many evidently believe just this – but the present formula doesn’t seem to do what it says on the tin. So, what’s wrong?

In recent months every political pundit has dined out on the Greek debt crisis and how “the cradle of democracy” has just had its own usurped. Ah, the irony. How we laughed. This is what’s wrong; it hasn’t. One essential element of Athenian democracy hasn’t been tried since, except in bastardised form by the Weimar Republic, with admittedly disastrous consequences.

The cliché has it that anybody who chooses to run for political office should, by definition, be barred from doing so. Athenians recognised this. They realised that people who simply wanted to be in power were not to be trusted. They had a simple solution. 100 senators were elected by ballot in contested seats. To keep tabs on these rogues, 900 were selected by lottery from a list of all eligible individuals. All enjoyed the same privileges. Very few were permitted more than one term of office.

The dying remnants of our democratic will are still sufficient to implement this. It would destroy a debauched, tribalised party system at a stroke. Individual members would be just that; individuals, not lobby fodder. If political office was seen as a duty rather than an opportunity, we might get better results; the bankers could get put back in their boxes for a start.

The idea of compulsion may at first seem abhorrent, but precedent exists in the jury system and evolved forms of national service around the world. I suspect £65K plus exes and generous pension shouldn’t deter too many anyway. And it might raise standards of debate all round, too, as we might be less ready to dismiss politics and shout abuse at politicians because, remember, “It could be You.”


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