Ancient and modern

How Athenians would have broken the Brexit deadlock

10 August 2019

9:00 AM

10 August 2019

9:00 AM

It is said that our political system is ‘broken’ simply because the passions aroused by Brexit have effectively created a hung parliament. So what to do about it? Athenians would have dealt with the problem by ostracism. Its purpose was to send one citizen into exile.

Once a year Athenian citizens (all males over 18) meeting in assembly got the chance to vote for an ostracism. It was held by citizens inscribing the name of their candidate on a potsherd (ostrakon). As long as at least 6,000 votes were cast, the man with the most votes was sent into exile for ten years. He did not suffer disgrace, lose citizenship or property, just his ability to reside in Athens.

About 10,000 such ostraka survive. Some citizens spoilt them. One inscribed his ostrakon with ‘starvation’, another with ‘Aristides [an influential speaker in the assembly], brother of Datis’ — an accusation of consorting with the Persians (‘medism’), Datis being a commander of the Persian attack on Greece at Marathon in 490 bc. One batch of 190 unused ostraka has been found with the same name written on it, ‘Themistocles’, in just a few hands. This may have been a service to the illiterate — or a scheme to fix the vote.

But what did an ostracism achieve? It was probably designed to defuse situations in which the Athenians could not make up their minds between proponents of competing policies: an ostracism forced a final decision. Speakers were ostracised for ‘medism’; so was a speaker for opposing Pericles; Themistocles was regularly a candidate for it (and finally fell to it).

The current ‘larger than life’ PM is exactly the sort of person who would have been the subject of an ostracism in Athens — and he knows it, especially as many of his own party would willingly ostracise him. But that, of course, would not solve the problem of stalemate in parliament. To do that, the PM is promising to deliver Brexit, do or die, and also splashing the cash, in the hope of winning a general election with a healthy majority. That would break the suffocating deadlock and restore British politics to business as usual.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments