Democracy, Referendums and Brexit: A Classical Perspective

Zack Case

“Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Winston Churchill

Chaos reigns in the age of Brexit. It feels like we’re trapped inside a runaway train steaming towards a forked track. Each track leads into a dark tunnel, one being darker and scarier than the other, but with no certain end in sight in either case. For all we know each track ends at the cliffs. The conductors are busy arguing amongst themselves and fighting for control of the train’s direction. They are not slamming on the brakes. The train speeds on.

These last few weeks have been unusually chaotic by Brexit standards. In the House of Commons there has been a vote, a political coup, another vote – but still no coherent and cohesive plan. British politics remains more divided and divisive than ever. And yet we haven’t had that one thing which possibly could unite people on both sides of the political divide. A second referendum. Only with a ‘People’s Vote’ can we, like James Bond in any Bond film, unshackle ourselves, break into the conductor’s cabin and hit the brakes. Only then can we reverse the train’s ominous advance.

Take whatever argument you like for having a second referendum. Mine is simply that democracy requires referendums. If we believe that we live in a democracy, then our democracy ought to start acting like one. If we trusted the people to take us out of the EU, then we ought to trust the people to take us out of the EU – or to put us back in, if they have changed their minds. And why shouldn’t they? If all mistakes were forever binding, we’d live in a pretty horrible – totalitarian, that is – society.

The Athenians came to their senses after what Thucydides refers to as Mytilenian debate in 427 BC, their own second referendum, if you will.

Despite initially voting unanimously to condemn all the men of Mytilene to death and all the women and children to slavery after the colony had revolted, the Athenian assembly overturned its decision and punished only the leaders of the revolt. A second referendum – a second referendum held even though the result of first vote was unanimous, in contradistinction to the split Brexit vote – ended up sparing the lives of innocent men and preserving the freedom of innocent women and children. Let the words of Thucydides’ Diodotus, bidding the Athenian assembly to think twice before taking drastic action, ring loudly: ‘the two greatest obstacles to good decision-making are haste and anger.’

Demokratia means ‘people-rule’. If a government is truly ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’ then it must be governed accordingly: by the referendum, ‘that which must be brought back [to the people].’ The referendum is the constitutive democratic procedure; it makes democracy democratic. Without it the people do not rule. Democracy in its current form, known as representative democracy, protests ‘people-rule’ rather than embracing it. The will of the people does not count for much today – except that time in 2016 when it did. ‘Remainers’ were horrified by David Cameron’s decision to let the British people ‘have their say’ on the European future of the United Kingdom – precisely because he let people ‘have their say.’ Representative democracy is only democratic in name.[1]

Our system is, in many respects, undemocratic.

This should be blatantly obvious in the case of Britain, with its unelected, unaccountable House of Lords and its unelected, unaccountable monarch, not to mention its elected but all-too-often unaccountable MPs and its initially unelected and currently unpopular Prime Minister. There are manifest contradictions in the logic of representative democracy, which runs thus: the many vote for the few to vote for the many. For example, instead of voting for a specific policy, representative democracy involves voting for a person and party which is all-too-often an imperfect match for your values: how should you vote if you agree with Trump on tax cuts but not on walls? Issues are clumped together in the voting booth, not deliberated individually. The outcomes of elections, another example, are not always representative of the majority. This is a particular problem in US politics: consider that the candidate with the national popular vote has not won the US Presidential election now on five occasions (unless, of course, voting statistics are merely ‘fake news’). Besides, for all the checks and balances which representational democracy is supposed to provide against the ‘tyranny of the majority’, Trump was elected. Hitler too.

Most problematically in the context of Brexit, representatives of the people might not represent those they claim to represent. MPs often face a tension between following their own inclinations or the party line and submitting to the will of the represented constituents: think of those who are ‘Remainers’ but whose constituents are predominantly ‘Leavers’, not least the Prime Minister herself who voted to remain but remains heedlessly firm that ‘Brexit means Brexit’.

The tension between politicians and people goes to the heart of the issue concerning Brexit: should MPs take the outcome of the referendum as a mandate to leave the EU at all costs or a guideline that can be discounted by the better judgement of political ‘experts’ in the better interests of the nation?

The intrusion of true democratic practice into the British political system has, rather ironically, precipitated a democratic crisis. In sum, the modern version of ‘people-rule’ is a corruption of the form of government which achieved its telos in fifth-century BC Athens. An Athenian time-traveller might consider the political system of 2019 Britain a very badly run oligarchy rather than a functioning democracy. At any rate, Theresa May is no Themistocles.

Of course, even Athenian democracy, for which the common epithets ‘direct’ or ‘radical’ democracy are merely synonyms for ‘true’ democracy, was not perfectly democratic. How could it be, when, for example, women were disenfranchised and when slavery was a staple part of life? Yet, by ancient standards at least, Athens was as democratic as it gets. The demos – more appropriately, those adult male citizens who turned up to the ekklesia (assembly) – determined its political, social, economic and foreign policies by voting directly on those policies;[2] there were no elections for candidates running under political parties. The boule (council of five hundred) which acted as a sort of executive committee for the ekklesia, was composed of officials who were drawn by lot and could not serve for two consecutive years or more than twice in a lifetime. The law courts were administered by jurors chosen by lot and paid after 462 BC to allow the poorest citizens to participate in democratic practice. While there were elections for magistrates, and for strategoi (generals) alone after 486 BC, the elected office holders were not legislators in the sense of modern politicians but rather experts with military and, until 486 BC, civic duties who remained firmly under the jurisdiction of the assembly and were under constant scrutiny.

Athenian democracy demanded accountability unlike anything in modern politics: for instance, Pericles himself was fined and the generals who had failed to recover the war dead from the defeat at the battle of Arginousae in 406 BC were sentenced to death. All in all, the demos held power (kratos) through the referendum. To be called a people-ruling government, the people must rule.

None of this is to say that pure democracy is the best, or even a good, form of government. It has certainly had its critics since its inception: Plato, Thucydides, the Old Oligarch, to name a few from antiquity. Plato’s Republic, for example, provides two of the most influential criticisms of democracy: that people are not political experts and that politicians govern to please the people in order to retain power. Hence the brilliant, counter-intuitive argument that philosopher-kings, endowed with political expertise of course, ought to rule precisely because they care the least about being in power. Have the last few years not proved Plato right on both accounts? The Brexit referendum seems to have vindicated not only the political ineptitude of the masses, who took the word of Nigel Farage above the advice of hundreds of experts in various fields (economics, law, science, history, etc.), but also the way in which politicians pander to the people to stay in power, since David Cameron’s decision to hold an EU referendum in the first place was partly driven by his desire to win a general election. Clearly, Cameron had not read his Plato. The referendum makes democracy potentially dangerous. With Trump in the Oval Office, might we recall that Plato was the first to warn that democracy naturally degenerates into tyranny?

Perhaps the greatest flaw in the referendum, however, is its inability to offer compromise.

We turn from philosophy to tragedy for this one, specifically to Aeschylus’ Eumenides, which dramatizes the irreconcilable problem of a split vote. In Aeschylus’ play which stages the trial of Orestes for matricide, it is only Athena who is able to absolve him of his crime by the weight of her vote (as well as by an unsettling combination of threats and bribery to win over the Furies who are prosecuting Orestes). Whether Orestes, who killed his mother because she killed his father, is guilty or innocent is a question that can never be convincingly answered, despite Athena’s intervention. ‘What shall I do?’ Orestes exclaims at the climactic moment of Libation Bearers, the preceding play in the Oresteia trilogy, as he is about to murder Clytemnestra. Orestes hesitates because he is forced to make an impossible choice between father and mother. The Eumenides consequently dramatizes a trial that simply cannot result in a unanimous verdict. Indeed, during several performances of Robert Ike’s Oresteia (2015), according to the director, members of the audience were sometimes spurred to shout out ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent’ during a pause towards the end of the trial scene – but never in total agreement. The Oresteia, concluding in the Athenian homicide court which is the setting for the Eumenides, raises disturbing questions which penetrate the very heart of democratic process. What happens when a split in a vote is entrenched? Does a margin of a single vote, or even 52% of the vote, authorise the will of the people? Can a reductive ‘yes’ or ‘no’ even provide an adequate solution to a dispute? What shall we do when there is no goddess to offer an authoritative voice? Referendums have their problems. Democracy is the worst...

...Except all those other forms of government that have been tried from time to time. Democracy may or may not be the most effective political system, but it is the fairest. This assumes, of course, that those persuading the voters play fair and do not, for example, paint misleading slogans on big red buses...

To be a democrat is, as Aristotle rightly puts it in his Politics, to be ‘capable of participating in deliberative or judicial office’.

Modern representative democracy only allows a fraction of its citizens to be democrats, to participate: a 72% turnout for the Brexit vote is obviously far more democratic than a 66% turnout for the 2015 general election (the highest ever, and strikingly high compared to turnout for local elections), not only because the former involved more people but also because it involved deliberation directly on an issue. While representational democracy does live up to and in some respects exceeds the standards set by Athenian democracy in terms of guaranteeing isegoria (freedom of speech) and isonomia (equality before the law), it is missing a key ingredient in the recipe for democracy: the referendum.

It is in the name of democracy – demokratia – that we need a second Brexit referendum. We need one before it is too late, before the Brexit train enters the blind tunnel. Brexit is going to affect everyone living in Britain, so it is only fair that everyone living in Britain ought to affect the final terms of Brexit – including cancelling it. Democracy brought us into this mess; it is for democracy to bring us out. ‘This was how close Mytilene came to destruction’, writes Thucydides after describing the urgent mission of the envoys to relate how the Athenians changed their mind for the good of humanity. A second referendum saved the day in 427 BC. We should learn from history in 2019 AD.

Zack Case


[1] Compare Thucydides’ comment that Athens under Pericles was only ‘a democracy in name, but in fact governed by its first citizen.’ However, Thucydides was no ardent democrat and we would be wise to take his comment with a pinch of salt.

[2] This included voting themselves and their children into war almost every year in the fifth century BC. Here is perhaps the clearest differentiator of democracy in its modern and ancient instantiations: countries go to war today sometimes regardless of overwhelming public opinion and even the opinion of the soldiers themselves. Note the irony that Britain suspended its democracy during WWII at the same time as the Allies took part in the greatest ever fight for democratic values...

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