The Panacea of Democracy 2.0 is Just Power Without Responsibility

In 427 BCE, the Athenian Assembly debated how to punish the small city-state of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, who were resisting their hegemony. Those Mytilenian leaders who were in Athens were summarily executed. Then the assembly voted to put to death all the city’s male citizens. A trireme was dispatched to the island. The next day the Athenians doubted their harsh punishment. The historian Thucydides records, in what is now called The Mytilenian Debate, the discourse between the two opposing sides. About the corruption of power and role of mercy in politics, it is one of the seminal texts of the Classical world. Eventually the assembly recast its votes to execute only the actual leaders of the revolt. A second trireme was sent out with fresh orders.

Two and a half thousand years later, off the northern coast of the same continent, the finance minister of a small island stood up in the national debating chamber and announced a major change to the country’s education policy. Our historian would be pressed to write of the great debates held on the issue.

The island is, of course, Britain, the minister George Osborne and the policy is the government’s intent to ‘force’ (such a pejorative word) all state-maintained schools to become ‘academies’. Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of the policy, is it not worrying that such a major shift in policy should happen with such little public debate? The reason, I suggest, is that with a European referendum approaching government is preoccupied and most of our political discourse concerns the ‘European question’.

There is an irony that many who opposed Britain’s third national referendum are the same people calling for greater democratic involvement, whether it is proportional representation, the idea of mass movement politics or direct democracy. Such calls are, of course, displacement activity. But there is a greater one that direct democracy is actually inhibiting our public discourse.


Casual attitudes to democratic participation brought the absurd spectacle of the House of Commons wasting time debating whether Donald Trump should be banned from the country. Government by plebiscite risks becoming a permanent campaign on issue after issue as the rest of politics is paralysed. Maybe progressives would be happy if direct democracy opened up issues, such as the death penalty and abolishment of the human rights act, which they support against the grain of public opinion. Sometimes complicated issues need detachment. The uncomfortable truth is that the theory (and often practice) of representative democracy works.

It is too easy to charge those who are direct democracy sceptics with elitism. How to make democracy best work in the interests of citizens needs to be debated. Few dispute that referendums have an occasional place in a democratic society. Europe has been a festering sore, which has to be resolved one way or another. Yet a central characteristic of the current Brexit debate has been the paucity of real engagement.

Direct democracy is not a progressive panacea or indeed any kind of panacea. In 2015 average turnout for plebiscites in Switzerland was 48.5%. Ireland’s vote in favour of Marriage Equality may be a positive step, but in supposedly liberal California the ballot on Proposition 8 overturned a court ruling in favour of the right of same-sex couple to marry. Textbook John Stuart Mill. On the other hand, few who saw Treasury committee chair Andrew Tyrie skewer an evasive and under-prepared Boris Johnson could be in no doubt that power was being held accountable. That he is elected, by his peers, not appointed matters. No whip would appoint such a terrier.

There is a greater problem with experiments with direct democracy.

After the financial crash many people were angry at the behaviour of banks and bankers. Often, quite rightly. Yet how many accepted their democratic part in the drama? The question is merely a rhetorical one. The reaction does encapsulate the paradox of modern democracy: people feel entitled to power but they do not accept responsibility.

it may be that where is debate falls short is that we are posing the wrong question

If the status quo is not satisfactory, it does not logically follow that direct democracy is the solution. The problem with these knee-jerk calls is not that public participation is an innately bad thing. It is that it is power without responsibility. Direct democracy does not make us more democratic it just means we vote more. Democracy is about where power ultimately lies, not just how often we go to the ballot box. When Tony Blair said that the dividing lines of politics in the future would be between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ policy approaches, he was right. We have accepted vast changes to public services which make the ‘provider’ more subservient to the ‘consumer’. The idea of choice in public services is ubiquitous. We need to approach our democratic structures with the same rigour.

That is what is lacking. So it may be that where the debate falls short is that we are posing the wrong question: the question to ask could be not “How do we give people more power?” but “How do we make those with power more responsible?”

A decade after the second trireme arrived just in time to spare the citizens of Mytilene, the Athenian Assembly was not so merciful to the island of Melos. Thucydides records that they expressed the realities of political power in the most brutal of ways. Within fifteen years they had been defeated by their rivals Sparta; in 399 BCE Socrates, that great Athenian gadfly, was put on trial and condemned to death by his fellow citizens. Power without responsibility is just tyranny no matter how many people exercise it.

“When the gods wish to punish us, they listen to our prayers” may be Oscar Wilde rather than Sophocles but the playwright was borrowing from many an ancient aphorism. In other words, be careful what you wish for. And read your Thucydides.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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