It seems appropriate to me, given the recent election, to
just pause to think about the word “democracy” for a while.  Democracy comes from the Greek word meaning
“rule of the people”.  Technically
speaking, we do not really have a democracy now – we, the people, do not make
the decisions, but we do have the right to elect a Government every five years
to make the decisions for us.  If we do
not like them, we can elect them out of Government.  We are, more accurately, part of an elective
democracy.  Contrast this with the Athenians
of the 5th Century BC who refined the first truly democratic system –
and what an amazing system it was.  All
Athenian citizens were required to attend an Assembly once a month to vote on everything
of any substance for the state, from deciding whether or not to go to war, to
trying small legal cases, to electing new citizens.  They gathered on a hill outside Athens; there
had to be a minimum of 6,000 present; all major decisions were decided there
and then; anyone was allowed to step forward to address the assembly (this was
one of the features of their democracy) and votes were decided by a show of
hands.  Perhaps the most incredible
statistic of this period, given that there was no professional Athenian army,
was that there were never two consecutive years in the 5th century
BC when the Assembly did not vote to go to war – and therefore, with no army, when
they did vote to go to war, they were literally voting themselves into
battle.  The custom was that a number of
citizens would be drawn by lot to go to fight, lists of those allotted would then
go up in town and it was your duty to report for the expedition within three days
with all your armour ready and your packed lunch in hand.

The machinery to manage this democracy was equally
remarkable.  Every citizen of Athens had
to belong to one of 10 tribes.  These
tribes were named after the great heroes of Athens and each tribe contained a
range of backgrounds, including members from coastal, town and farming
communities; it was not dissimilar to belonging to one the Houses at Bedford
School – a range of people belonging to one social grouping.  Every year, a Council of 500 (that is, 50
from each of the 10 tribes) was set up to manage the monthly assemblies.  Council members were drawn by lot.  Greek democracy loved the drawing of lots,
because elections tended to favour the rich, were often rigged and subject to
bribery, and didn’t allow for the Gods to have their say.  A lottery was as democratic as could possibly
be imagined.  So anybody could sit on the
Council each year, and their job was to set the agenda for the full Assembly
meetings.  Within that Council of 500,
each tribe took charge for 36 days; and within that tribe, a different Chairman
was elected every single day.  In other
words, the person who was the closest Greek equivalent to our Prime Minister
was elected by lot and was in office for one single day.  So the majority of Greek citizens probably
had this opportunity to be Chairman of the Council at some stage in their

A major advantage of this radical democracy was that,
when big state decisions were being made at Assembly, they were being made by a
group of citizens many of whom had had experience right at the heart of
politics.  Every citizen was therefore a
political being; as I mentioned in one of my previous assemblies, the Greek
word “idiotes” (which gives us the English word idiot) meant a citizen who had
nothing to do with public affairs; it is a measure of how important politics
was to them.  And every citizen had an
equal say in the decision making of the state.

A major disadvantage of this radical democracy,
paradoxically, was that anyone could get up to speak in the Assembly.  Votes were often swayed not by the wisest and
shrewdest of men, but by those who were the most persuasive – the
demagogues.  Decisions needed to be made
quickly – they only had a day for each agenda – so the man who could sway the
crowd usually won the day.  This made for
some catastrophic decisions, which led ultimately to the downfall of Athenian

I have, however, often wondered whether radical democracy
might make a comeback in today’s age of computers. Clearly it is not possible
for all citizens of England to turn up to a single assembly once a month; nor
is it practical for us all to go out to the polling booths more than once every
few years.  But how long will it be
before there is a way that we can, in a secure and manageable way, press a
button on our computer to vote.  Is it
conceivable that at some stage in the future, we might be able to have a full
and instant public vote on decisions such as the invasion of Iraq or the
imposition of a mansion tax?  Will the
ruling elite, as they did in Athens over 2000 years ago, ever allow radical
democracy to happen again?

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