Ancient and modern

Boris Johnson needs to face down his own people

24 October 2020

9:00 AM

24 October 2020

9:00 AM

To beat the virus, the government is asking us to keep to simple hands-face-space guidelines. When these are not followed, the virus spreads, but it is still (apparently) the government’s fault, i.e. the people can do no wrong. That was the case too in Athens’s direct democracy, where anyone whose proposal was ratified by the people’s assembly, but then turned out badly, could still be prosecuted for ‘misleading the people’. Even Pericles.

In 431 bc war broke out between Athens, a sea-based power, and Sparta, a land-based one. Since Athens’s walls embraced its harbour Piraeus, Pericles proposed withdrawing the whole population inside the walls, and using their marine dominance to supply Athens and attack Sparta and its allies by sea. The assembly discussed and ratified it.

This was hard enough for the rural population, since ‘they felt as if they had been exiled’ (Thucydides). But when the people saw the Spartans devastating their crops, while oracle collectors made hay selling predictions to suit all tastes (the ‘commentators’ of their day?), they turned in fury on Pericles. He put in place local defensive measures but opposed recalling the assembly ‘because, driven more by emotion than reason, they would make wrong decisions’.

A killer plague now struck, made deadlier by the crowded conditions. When the Spartans returned next year, the people had had enough. The assembly voted to send embassies to Sparta to sue for peace. The Spartans rejected them. So the people attacked Pericles — who fought back by emphasising their responsibility: we are all in this together; unpredictable events have weakened your morale; your current losses would be nothing, set against defeat; you voted for the war; so no surrender. The Athenians grudgingly agreed, but still fined and sacked him — and ‘typically of crowds’, their anger now assuaged, admitted he was the man for the job and re-elected him.

Pericles won by facing down his own people. How about someone doing the same here? After all, it is only humans who spread the virus. Is that really the government’s fault? Go on, PM: tell them the truth. It will cause ‘outrage’, but may ultimately win you respect.

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