Lessons on referendums: why the Greeks only used “Ostracism” for a short period of their history…

Referendum: after the ‘weapons grade’ shock to the UK’s political system, do you still remember that? Great lessons from Mary Beard and Ancient Athens on the shortcomings of Ostracism

I am not suggesting that there is a direct lesson here that we can simply apply across the millennia. Ancient Athens is far too different from us for that: its citizen body was, for a start, no larger than the size of some modern university student unions, and was completely “woman-free”.

But Athens can help us to look harder at ourselves. Handing us a referendum once every twenty years or so, largely depriving us of accurate information in a fog of slogans and rhetoric, and allowing us all, on both sides, to vent our various discontents and prejudices in a yes/no vote is not a way to reach a responsible decision.

Nor is it a way to re-empower a disempowered electorate. That, as Athenian democrats would have seen, needs something much more radical, and it has to happen not twice in a lifetime but in the day-to-day practice of political life.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • Kev Hughes

    This feels like you wrote the beginning of a piece and thats it. Would you like to elaborate or finish the piece below the line as it seems like an interlude track on an album.

  • Jag

    Yep, definitely reads like Mick was interrupted by the electricity reader calling, and Mick’s cat sat on the keyboard and accidentally pressed “publish”

  • Kev Hughes

    Jag, I’m underwhelmed by this piece. It’s akin to reading ‘The Trial’; you can just tell when Kafka passed as it just comes to such an abrupt and awful ending, nit merely for the protagonist, but for the reader who is left wondering what happened to the story and character development, why have we jumped to him being lifted by some shady folks?

  • Anglo-Irish

    Probably not Mick, some impersonation has been going on lately, and Mick has been the victim. : )

    In answer to the post, referendums should only ever be held if required for constitutional reasons as in the ROI.

    And then they should be held on a straightforward easily understood question.

    Offering and holding a referendum on such a complex subject as EU membership was stupidity on a stick.

    The admission after the event by so many people that they hadn’t really understood the full nature of what was being asked and the consequences proved that it was ridiculous to put the question to an uninformed and subsequently mislead electorate.

    Decisions such as that are what we pay members of parliament to take after conducting serious research into the ramifications to the country.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    “Handing us a referendum once every twenty years or so, largely depriving us of accurate information in a fog of slogans and rhetoric, and allowing us all, on both sides, to vent our various discontents and prejudices in a yes/no vote is not a way to reach a responsible decision.

    Nor is it a way to re-empower a disempowered electorate. That, as Athenian democrats would have seen, needs something much more radical, and it has to happen not twice in a lifetime but in the day-to-day practice of political life.”

    Well, yes, we as an electorate have all been fully habituated to the inevitable political disempowerment and infantalisation that the representative system inevitably entails. Told to simply put serious decisions into the hands of others far better qualified every five years, is it any surprise that when actually asked about something collectively, the responsibility comes as something of an intoxication? If we are looking for a genuine political empowerment of the community something more far more participatory, more hands on, is required to encourage us all to grow some political maturity. At least in Italy a party that is seriously challenging the status quo can actually begin to articulate this demand for a more direct participatory democracy:


    Here, in the Wee Six or the in the assemblies of the two Belfast Agreement guarantors our biggest worry appears to be simply finding someone Big and Leaderlike to tell us what we really think.

  • Angry Mob

    What part of “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” did you find difficult to understand?

  • Anglo-Irish

    The decision was monumental in its impact, a significant proportion of the electorate had no real grasp of the facts.

    The morning after the vote the Brexit side came out and admitted that they had lied to the voters.

    There was no £350 Million a week.

    They were unable to say what amount of money the NHS would receive as a result of Brexit.

    They couldn’t guarantee that free movement from the EU could be stopped as it may be a requirement of any trade negotiation we may agree.

    What part of ‘allowing the uninformed, xenophobic jingoistic emotion led clowns with no plan to decide something like this’ was a stupid act do you not understand?

  • Keith

    I don’t disagree that this was a big question to put into the hands of the people. However, this is a pretty big constitutional issue, and I really think it was fair enough to ask people. We did after all ask people if they wanted to join in the first place, and the terms of membership have changed considerably since then.
    Dismissing leave voters in these terms is not fair, and the fact that so many people in leadership thought in these terms is in part why we have a leave vote now. People’s genuinely held fears and concerns about the current nature and direction of travel were dismissed. Concern about migration is not the same as xenophobia, jingoism or racism, and it’s unkind to brand leave voters in this manner. As for being uninformed, I think most people saw through the propaganda from both sides. Despite not knowing what exit would mean in detail, more people still wanted to leave than stay. We can brand them and insult them, but the fact remains that people disliked the EU sufficiently to want to take the risk of leaving. Lessons need to be learnt from that, across Europe.

  • NotNowJohnny

    Of course people weren’t asked if they wanted to join in the first place. This is an example of how uninformed people really are as regards the EU even in relation to a simple straightforward issue that can be easily checked on google within ten seconds.

  • Anglo-Irish

    Concern about migration is indeed a reasonable thing, I have concerns about it myself.

    However, how many of those that voted leave were aware that at least 50 % of the migrants arriving into the UK are from outside the EU and therefore the total responsibility of the UK government?

    How many were aware that if we wish to negotiate a trading agreement with the EU similar to that of Norway and Switzerland then we will need to agree to free movement of EU citizens?

    Certainly this man appears to be convinced that he has a full grasp of the situation although I have my misgivings as to how well informed he actually is.
    How many more like him?

    People disliked the EU so much because it was used as a bogeyman by our second rate politicians to divert criticism from themselves.

    For example it was reported that many Welsh voters chose leave because they blamed the EU for the parlous state of British Steel and the Port Talbot problems due to the import of cheap steel from China.

    What they were unaware of is that when the EU tried to introduce tariffs on Chinese steel the UK looking for Chinese investment veto’d the idea.

    Then there is the fact that many of the areas that voted leave are the recipients of EU funding and have no guarantee that the UK will continue it after Brexit.

    There has been an attempt to show this as a demonstration of how strong the anti EU feeling was, complete BS, the majority of them simply didn’t know.

    As for insulting them these uninformed jingoistic clowns have damaged the future of this country and with it the futures of my children and grandchildren, stupid is mild compared with what I really feel about them.

  • Keith

    Fair point, but I think you know what I meant.

  • Keith

    I think many people were aware of such things, but yes, no doubt many were not. I agree that many people were not well informed (no different to any election really). That’s true for leave and remain voters. As I’ve said before, the interesting thing for me in all of this is that people disliked the status quo sufficiently to take the risk, even with so little information on what the post-Brexit postion would be. There’s a lesson in that for politicians.

  • Kevin Breslin

    They voted when they joined the EEC, other EU nations managed to ask their people about joining the EU, but that’s not in the culture of Westminster which sees referendums as advisory.

  • Anglo-Irish

    There most certainly is a lesson there for politicians, don’t let uninformed morons decide the fate of the country just because you are more concerned about the future of your party than that of the country.

    No one has any idea where this is going to go, and all those who were heading up the leave campaign have left like rats from a sinking ship.

    The only good reason to leave was to ensure a better more prosperous future for the UK.

    No one has any bleeding idea as to how this is going to be accomplished.

    Still we’re free, free at last!

    Not sure what from, and not sure how much regulation and cost we’re going to have to accept to enable us to carry on as before, but still, what does a bit of financial insecurity, unemployment and years of uncertainty which will drive away investment matter?

  • Anglo-Irish

    Actually we didn’t, we voted after we’d joined the EEC to see if we wanted to remain in it.

    We joined the EEC on 1st January 1973 and held a referendum on 5th June 1975 to see if we wanted to remain in it.

    Imagine the hilarity which would have ensued if Ireland had done it that way around.

  • Angry Mob

    The referendum question met both criteria that you set out above, then you go on to contradict yourself that it was stupid act simply because you didn’t get the result you wanted.

  • Anglo-Irish

    Which criteria? Elucidate.

    Referendums should only be held on straight forward subjects that are basically inconsequential ” should we change the national anthem? ” yes, it’s a dirge.

    Does it really matter if we change it? Will it materially effect anyone? No, so go ahead and hold it.

    This referendum was held on a vitally important subject which will effect the future of the people of the country and it was a complex matter which few people fully understood.

    The obvious ignorance of so many people with regard to what they were voting for and the impact upon the country’s future were so serious that the referendum should never have taken place.

    The fact that I didn’t get the result I wanted is immaterial, what is important is that the result is going to damage the country.

    The fact that you are so caught up with the fact that your side won that you can’t see the disaster coming down the road speaks volumes.

    One question, Please explain exactly how we are going to take advantage of this situation to improve the future of the country.

    Give us some facts, not speculation and wishful thinking, what exactly are we going to do that will place us in a better position than we were in when we were a member of the largest and richest trade bloc in the world?

    I await with bated breath your ‘cunning plan’ to provide this country with a golden future.

  • npbinni

    anglo-irish, would you be saying a referendum was stupid if the vote had gone the other way? And what’s so complex about EU membership? We have had decades of experience with the EU and its predecessors, and when people were given a clear and simple choice, they voted leave.

    Pragmatists are accepting the new reality. Do you not think it is time to move on, especially now that we know that many of the downsides presented by the Remain camp were, in fact, fabrications, exaggerations and hyperbole?

  • Anglo-Irish

    If the result had gone the other way then in my view it would have prevented serious damage to the economy and the country’s future.

    But yes as it happens, I would still maintain that a referendum on such an important and complex subject should never have been held.

    When a decision requires informed knowledge of the matter to hand and when that matter has many complications it should be decided by professionals who’s job it is to research the subject and come to a decision based upon the facts as they see them.

    As it happens we have such people available, we call them members of parliament, and we happen to know that the majority of them wanted to remain in the EU.

    The referendum was offered for purely selfish party reasons as an inducement to the right wing Tory’s not to desert to Ukip.

    And no, we shouldn’t be pragmatic about a decision which we believe to be of enormous damage to the future of the country.

    Fabrications and exaggerations? That’s a good one coming from someone who supports the side of a bunch of liars that have disappeared off the scene.

    Let this man explain it to you.