What does the EU referendum have in common with the Mytilene Debate of 427 BC?

12 Mar 2016


History has shown that direct democracy has its dangers and can lead to poor decisions being made


In Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War there is an account of an incident (occurring around 427 BC) in which the Athenian Assembly discussed how the revolt of the city of Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, should be punished. Classical Athens was a particularly unique Ancient settlement because it was a direct democracy - meaning that every male citizen (women, slaves and foreigners were excluded) had the right to propose, support and vote on legislative motions.



Thucydides writes that in their “angry mood” the Athenians passed a motion sentencing the entire male population of Mytilene to death and despatching a Trireme (warship) with orders for the Athenian Garrison to begin the massacre. The next day however, a rousing speech by Diodotus managed to convince the Athenians to reverse this motion and another Trireme was sent with “all haste” to prevent the massacre. It arrived just in time and the people of Mytilene were spared a grizzly fate.



For Thucydides, the Mytilene debate highlighted the ineffectiveness and indecisiveness of the Athenian Assembly and direct democracy in general. The citizens were persuaded not by rational arguments or long-term considerations but by their immediate emotional response to the revolt, leading them to pass a cruel measure that they later regretted.



It’s hard to compare modern European democracies to that of Classical Athens. Most Western nations today practise representative democracy, in which the day-to-day legislative process is carried out by elected representatives of the people. The general population actively participates in the political process only at intervals, through the act of voting either in elections or referendums. Voting is a crucial political function for the modern European state as it makes government wholly accountable to the people-at-large, rather than a specific group, faction or person. In a representative democracy, occasional referendums allow important, poignant and life-changing reforms to acquire the additional legitimacy they need from the population. A decision as significant as exiting a political and economic union needs the direct consent of the population.



However, as the Athenians and Mytileneans could have attested - there are specific dangers surrounding even the occasional use of direct democracy because people can be persuaded to cast their vote, one way or the other, on the basis of things other than hard facts.



Although it is nigh-on impossible to accurately predict how the UK will fare following a possible Brexit, politicians have already been relying heavily in the EU Referendum campaign on rhetorical flair and ideological bluster, rather than rational justification, when it comes to advocating their respective causes. To take one example, the pro-Brexit side has made countless appeals to a patriotic and somewhat irrelevant take on British history in order to persuade people to vote “Leave.” Whether it be the Magna Carta or an allusion to an almost spiritual idea that Britain’s destiny lies outside the EU, these arguments are not based on rational predictions or any sense of realism.



Michael Gove’s reasoning behind backing Brexit was that “we showed the world what a free people could achieve if they were allowed to govern themselves.” Romanticised and highly selective takes on British history (Gove doesn’t mention that this “free people” also wreaked untold misery across the world) act as a cynical ploy to stir up feelings of anti-European resentment.



There are parallels that can be drawn between the Athenian Assembly of 428-7 BC and the British people in 2016 AD. The Athenians made a decision based on an emotive flare-up. They made a horrific mistake, which luckily they rectified in time. Could the same happen if a Brexit results from an emotive appeal to our history?



Both sides in the referendum camapaign have correctly expressed a sense of finality around the prospect of Brexit. The trade deals between the UK and the rest of Europe would no longer be in force as of the 24th of June, while the residency status of British ex-pats dotted around Europe and EU citizens living in the UK would be totally overhauled. Brexit would be irreversible. The EU has made trade deals en bloc with the rest of the world - for good or ill a vote to leave will irrevocably alter the UK’s relationship, not just with the remainder of the European Union, but also with the rest of the world. By the 24th of June it will already be too late to stop this.



In order to avoid a regretful British populace, it is absolutely imperative that both sides campaign using reason and realism rather than rhetorical illusion and desperate attempts to win voters’ hearts instead of their heads. Sending another Trireme won’t work this time.


Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Please reload

Want to respond? Submit an article.


We provide a space for reasoned arguments and constructive disagreements.

Help to improve the quality of political debate – support our work today.