Peter Jones: The lesson of Athens

Peter Jones writes in The Spectator about the differences between the Athenian system the modern electoralist system. Unfortunately, while Jones makes some very valid points, his description of the Athenian system elides its most important democratic institute, sortition, and his reform proposals go down the standard mistaken route of emphasizing mass participation:

The lesson of Athens: to make people care about politics, give them real power

We don’t, as far as the Greeks are concerned, really do politics; we just elect people to do it for us

Voters explain their apathy about politics on the grounds that the politicians do not understand them. No surprise there, an ancient Greek would say, since the electorate does not actually do politics. It simply elects politicians who do, thereby cutting out the voters almost entirely.

But the contrast with 5th and 4th century bc Athens does not simply consist in the fact that all decisions, both political and legal, were made by the Athenian citizen body meeting every week in Assembly. As Pericles’ Funeral Speech (430 bc) famously demonstrates, what is so striking about Athens is that the nature of the world’s first (and last) genuine democracy and the importance of preserving it were the subject of constant public debate.

[W]ho is making the case for our system? If no one, why not? Is it because, like the EU, it needs reform? And if so, how? (Forget the Lords: only Parliament counts.) Consider, for example, the Scots’ referendum. People were actually doing politics then, because they made the decision. Hence the huge turnout. Is there a hint there? After all, every politician applauded. Or was it just crocodile applause? Is it the politicians at fault, not the system?