Ancient and modern

Unlike MPs, Cicero understood the meaning of sovereignty

23 March 2019

9:00 AM

23 March 2019

9:00 AM

The problem with Brexit is that parliament is not designed to do what the people have commanded it to. MPs feel their job is to construct their own manifesto and deliver on that, not on something foisted upon them by an ignorant public in the name of ‘popular sovereignty’. Unlike MPs, however, Cicero understood the importance of that sovereignty, and discussed it in detail in his On the Republic (De re publica).

At the heart of the res publica, he argued, was the notion of the public interest, which he defined as ‘people coming together to form a society by agreeing about what justice is, and mutually participating in its advantages’. Of these, freedom (libertas) was the most important. But if a tyrant put himself in charge of that ‘public interest’ (he meant Julius Caesar), the people would lose those rights of ‘justice’ and ‘mutual advantage’ which lay at the heart of the free republic, and so lose their libertas.


Nevertheless, this libertas, Cicero said, did not in fact make the people sovereign in an absolute sense. The reason he gave was that the Roman ‘constitution’ in fact relied on trust: the people entrusting (not transferring) their sovereign rights first to kings, and later to a senate consisting of those leaders (consuls, etc) whom the people had themselves elected. The fact that Rome’s leaders actually respected the sovereignty entrusted to them by the people made Rome the success it was.

Elsewhere Cicero clarified this point by calling up an image from guardianship: ‘Management of the res publica should be conducted in the interests of those entrusted to one’s care, and not of those to whom the management has been entrusted,’ just as (on a different level), ‘Every leader should understand that he represents the city and ought to maintain its dignity and distinction, preserve its laws, dispense justice and remember what has been entrusted to his good faith.’

Cicero failed. The republic collapsed. Libertas was lost. We will soon find out whether the Brexit-hating MPs, with the Speaker, act as little Caesars, or as guardians of the trust reposed in them by the people to deliver libertas from the EU.

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