Ancient and modern

Where does authority really lie in the UK? The ancients would have known

14 July 2018

9:00 AM

14 July 2018

9:00 AM

Forget David Davis, Boris, the cabinet, the commentariat. It’s time to concentrate on the big picture and the central question: where does final authority lie in the UK? The ancients grappled with this problem too.

In the direct, radical democracy of 5th and 4th c Athens, it lay with the male citizens meeting in assembly. Appointed officials were under constant scrutiny by the assembly, and could pay a high price for failure (including execution). Indeed, any citizen who proposed a course of action to which the assembly agreed but which turned out to be a disaster could be impeached for ‘deceiving the people’. It was no defence to say that the assembly had agreed to it. The people were sovereign. They resisted two oligarchic coups.


Under the Roman republic, authority lay with an elite senate, though people’s assemblies still had to validate their decisions, and the non-elite plebeian assembly, whose laws also applied across the board. In the 2nd c bc these two clashed. Result: collapse of authority, civil war, the end of the republic and in 27 bc authority passing to unaccountable emperors.

The conflict between popular and central authority is one we currently face. Eyeing ancient precedent, the West deals with it as follows: we the people have the right to (i) run our own affairs; (ii) outsource that running to a majority party in an elected, sovereign parliament; (iii) vote that party out. But since the UK voted for Brexit and parliament as a whole is anti-Brexit, are we running our own affairs? Well, we do outsource affairs to a final authority: parliament. It feels that it has honoured the referendum by voting for Article 50, but that in the country’s best interests it has a duty now to stay as close to Europe as possible. Mrs May alone seems to understand this. For, howl as the hard Brexiteers will, this parliament will never sanction a no-deal. Hers then is a strategy for getting a deal of some sort through our soft-Brexit parliament. After all, it is not the last word. It can always be changed over time. If the people do not like it, they have the final sanction: see (iii) above.

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