The word 'democracy' retains a special aura — it remains an aspiration for activists around the world. But how democratic is our own democracy? Have we hollowed out the essence of citizenship with a parliamentary system that is remote and unaccountable? Is our representative democracy in fact unrepresentative?
After the Brexit vote, there has been a backlash against plebiscites, a model developed in the ancient Greek city states, notably Athens. To learn more about the competing models, openDemocracy spoke with Cambridge University professor Paul Cartledge, author of Democracy: A Life.
Benjamin Ramm: After the EU referendum, what are we to make of democracy in the UK – and of democracy as an idea, and an ideal?
Paul Cartledge: We distinguish between local government and Westminster, or Holyrood, and quite rightly; this is a step change, it's a completely different sort of thing. Well the Athenians recognised that – they had local government, local politics, and so actually quite a number of Athenians probably were familiar mainly or only with what went on locally. But what that meant was that their dad, their cousin, their uncle and so on, they'd go to the local meeting — like a town meeting in the eastern states of America — and then come home and chat about it. And that's sort of normal; for us politics is a very abnormal thing. A plebiscite is very abnormal politics.
A plebiscite is very abnormal politics
BR: You say that if an ancient Athenian were to come to America or Britain now, they would look at our democracy, you say, as a ‘disguised oligarchy’.
PC: Well this is a more subtle point, because in a way we have a mass democracy at certain times, in other words, at general elections. But on the day-to-day basis, the distinction that I'm drawing there is we choose when we elect others to rule for us, we hope on our behalf, not just instead of us. But the ancients believed that if you rule, if you have the power, then you rule, you don't delegate. They didn't have the notion of representative democracy. And that's what I mean by the institutional distinction.
There is actually though a separate point — which of course is very much more blatant in the States than it is over here, though it does exist here — the more money you spend on the candidate or a campaign, the more likely — this is simply fact — it is to get your point of view, or your vote, or your candidate into the majority view.READ MORE: Is a world parliament the solution to planetary challenges?
BR: So let's be honest here: is it possible to have an authentic, successfully functioning democratic society, with the acute inequality that we see in the United States and increasingly in the UK?
PC: In practice, no. The States put up extra barriers, which we don't, so you have to register for a party or register not for a party, but you have to make a big point of registering. And the percentage of the potential electorate that are registered is actually very small.
I wouldn't want to say that parliamentary democracy in and of itself is necessarily a bad thing – what I think it should be allied with is more consultation, online, websites, YouGov, constant polls, which [at present] are not at all probative. In other words, nothing hangs on them; they're just informational.
Well that could be beefed up: something like — I think I may advocate this actually in the book — nearer to a Swiss referendum-style. That's national, but the Swiss also have local parliaments in the cantons, especially the German-speaking ones, where as you were saying, anybody can speak: butcher, baker, can roll-up — they know the score and people know 'Ah, you're speaking, yes I know you'. Well, one of the issues is not just size, it's not just the nature of the population, but its face-to-face intervisibility, that makes the difference I think.
Public voting in Switzerland: a Landsgemeinde (Cantonal Assembly) in Glarus, 2009. Credit: Wikimedia/Marc Schlumpf. Some rights reserved.
BR: But isn't the danger with romanticising the Swiss cantons that in 1989, one of them was forced by federal law to allow women to vote? Because until 1989, one of the most conservative cantons, in which only men voted —
PC: It was Appenzell Innerrhoden, as it happens. Yes.
BR: So democracy — let's be clear about this — democracy is no guarantee of equality, or indeed of human rights, even if the Athenians are responsible for both the origins.
The ancients didn't have this 'the state and us' distinctionPC: Well there I would make a distinction. The ancients didn't have much of a notion of individual rights, because why do we think they're important, why do we historically have them? It's because we react against the state. First of all the absolutist, monarchical state, then variously oligarchic republican states. But the notion that big brother is 'them' not 'us', well the ancients didn't [have that] — because they were small and relatively homogeneous and relatively fluid — they didn't have this 'the state and us' distinction.
BR: You speak in praise of local democracy, and yet you lament the Leave vote from the EU. Now surely, no other body represents the removal of democracy from habitual, everyday, face-to-face local engagement, than the EU.
PC: Tell me about it.
BR: So how do you not think there's a contradiction?
PC: There is no contradiction — what you say is entirely correct, and I'm no admirer of the EU's constitution: the non-electability of the Commission, etcetera. But I personally did not vote the way I did purely because the EU as a whole — which includes us — is a brilliantly democratic institution. I voted to remain in it with the hope that one day it might get more democratic, but also because the negative consequences of not being in it are terrifying. And I don't mean just economic, I mean cultural, I mean social.READ MORE: The revolt of the natives: Britain after Brexit
BR: You speak about institutions and the lottery. Now openDemocracy's founder, Anthony Barnett, wrote a book called The Athenian Option, in which he argued that we should reintroduce sortition (selecting members by drawing of lots) to the House of Lords. Do you think that's a good idea, and how would it work?
PC: Well you would have — I think, given the complexity of the modern world — to have constituencies in the way they do in Ireland. People would represent their area, either of what their religion was, or what their business was, or what their expertise was. For example, there are senators in Ireland who are academics and so on. Within that system, then you would have I think a two-stage process: those people who put their names forward, and you by the lottery encourage people's peers, who are not chosen from above but are chosen from below.
Out of that — and this is an ancient Athenian system — there would then be some vetting. Because you clearly don't want certain types of criminal and so on; people holding certain, let's say, racist or other extreme fundamentalist religions, you know what I mean. Some sort of vetting process.
Paul Cartledge speaks to Benjamin Ramm. Photo by Ralph Pritchard. All rights reserved.
BR: But how do you vet against it, how can you democratically vet someone's views — that's not democracy, is it?
PC: It is because, we must surely stand for, we must surely stand behind what we have said or what we have done. So if you've actually committed a crime and been found out and been convicted then obviously you are a condemned criminal, you have a record. But suppose somebody — it's well known on Twitter or whatever — utters racist or sexist or anti-religious remarks, that's not a suitable person to be a member of the House of Lords.
BR: That's interesting, so like a jury —
PC: There's a certain minimal check, absolutely.
Krisis in Greek meant a decision point, and we are at that
BR: But isn't the problem here that, who's making the check? We might be, you know, liberal on this matter, but we have to acknowledge if someone has a conservative religious view, and their attitude towards homosexuality is something that we would disagree with — we might say that it's not egalitarian — that might be a representative constituency in Britain. Are we seriously going to prohibit that from sitting?
PC: I think that's where I go for my Voltaire: that I'll defend to the death your right to say that — try to persuade me by all means — but you know, I'm not going to silence you.
BR: But should these people be legislators?
PC: Well, that's probably for the people as a whole to decide, I think it's a tough one.
BR: And it's the old Greek word, krisis, that has a suggestion of ...
PC: A point of decision. We use it negatively to mean everything's going wrong. But krisis in Greek meant a decision point, and we are at that. Especially with our parliamentary democracy in this country, which is currently failing.
This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.