Ancient and modern

Article 50 and the Athenians

17 February 2018

9:00 AM

17 February 2018

9:00 AM

Europe, a majority of MPs (party loyalties aside), the Lords, the civil service, the BBC and the CBI are all determined to keep Britain in the EU. To that end, emitting crocodile tears, they would welcome a final Brexit deal that is effectively worthless. That, they hope, will cause a second referendum, resulting in a ‘remain’ vote. The Athenians knew how to deal with that sort of situation.

Athens from 508-322 bc was a direct democracy, in which all decisions were taken by male citizens over 18 meeting in assembly. But since they could not just turn up and wonder what to talk about, a council of 500, appointed by lot from citizens over 30, acted as the assembly’s steering committee. The council placed each topic for discussion on the day’s agenda and turned it into a draft proposal either as a specific recommendation, or as an ‘open’ question, on which the assembly made the final decision.


And that is the point: as Aristotle made absolutely clear, ‘the council does not have final power. It simply presents draft proposals to the people.’ In the case of a specific recommendation, the people could accept it, add riders, revise it or reject it in favour of an alternative proposal from the floor. For example, in 369 bc, the Athenian council proposed a military alliance between the Athenians and the Spartans to counteract the growing might of Thebes: the Athenians should be in charge of the navy, the Spartans of the army. After debate the assembly revised it and passed the proposal that the leadership of both navy and army should alternate between the two allies every five days.

So on the Athenian model, MPs, mindful that, after Article 50, they had acquiesced in Brexit, should continue to canvass our opinion and invite us to vote on a wording for the second referendum. If they did, we would probably opt for ‘Worthless deal or WTO rules’ or perhaps ‘Remain in the EU or WTO rules’. But can anyone see MPs agreeing to either of those? Of course not. So they will either offer no second referendum and make the final decision themselves, or compel us to choose between ‘Worthless deal or stay in the EU’. They are not going to give us a second chance to thwart their will.

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