Ancient and modern

David Cameron would be a winner in Ancient Greece

21 September 2019

9:00 AM

21 September 2019

9:00 AM

David Cameron is convinced he was right to call a referendum and to promise to enact it. Justifiably: there was a huge turnout and a clear winner. That’s democracy. But he has been lashing out because the referendum did not go as he hoped. This whingeing makes him look like a total loser. An ancient Greek in that position would argue he was a winner: he had kept his promise, and therefore reputation, intact.

For a Greek, reputation was of the very highest importance because simply doing or being good was not enough: if people did not know about it, what was the point? As a result, Greeks often explained their motive for action in terms of the honour and renown it would bring them. For example, those borrowing money did so with few witnesses, but when they paid it back, they invited a multitude ‘in order to be regarded as honest in their dealings’. In citizen assemblies and juries, it was common to address your audience with questions such as ‘What will be said of you if you …?’, or ‘What will Greeks think of Athens if …?’ or ‘Will it not be shameful for Athens to …?’


In 330 bc the statesman Demosthenes was defending his public record from attacks by a rival. Throughout this magnificent speech, he emphasised that his sole concern had been to ‘foster, further and fight for the honour, power, and glory of my native land’. When he sent out a naval squadron to save allies, he won for Athens ‘eulogies, commendations, honours, decorations and votes of thanks’. All the measures he had adopted ‘brought renown, distinction and power to the city’; indeed, in every generation, Athens had ‘always, whatever the risk, fought for primacy, honour and prestige’. It was Athens’s reputation throughout the world that counted for him — and, of course, by association, his own.

So Mr Cameron should be proud of his principled decision to give the people a democratic choice. The current chaos is due to an anti-democratic mob in parliament, urged on by an unprincipled Speaker, who have to a man and woman broken their promise to the British people. Turn your wrath on them, Mr Cameron.

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