It’s rather early on a Sunday morning, and I am already on the train to Cardiff, determined to get there in time to vote on a few constitutional amendments. Yes, it’s that time of year again – it’s a Liberal Democrat conference, of course, where debates on such issues might be thought of as part of an identity-forming ritual.
But it’s also much more than that, because the party famously and often rather inconveniently (as any Tory MP would probably be all too glad to tell you) practices direct democracy – and democracy needs thought, practice, constant maintenance and the continuing trust of all participants. Many consider this a matter for the nerds – but I think it lies in the nature of democracy that it has to be discussed and policed constantly, that it has to leave a complex trail, on paper or online today, on tablets of wood and stone when it was first practiced two and a half thousand years ago. Democracy requires committees and committee meetings, debates about procedures, agendas and minutes, protocols for speeches, presiding officers – in short, it brings in its wake many of those activities which people tend to find tedious (at best!) and often entirely offputting. Who wants to be stuck in a meeting for too long, especially when there is too much talk about procedure?
As an ancient historian, I can hardly fail to look back to the beginnings of democracy in ancient Athens. They ran their city’s affairs, a complex set of foreign policies in a world of hundreds of states, a large fleet, quite a few wars and a large empire on the basis of debate and decisions in their assembly of all citizens, a body which met (in our terms) about once a week, in meetings which started at sunrise and which could (occasionally only, one hopes) go on till sunset made it too dark to count the votes. Nevertheless, there was probably a regular turnout of several thousand, even before the Athenians started paying citizens for attending.
Ancient commentators (all wealthy, most aristocratic) were not impressed with democracy: they were not convinced that the uneducated masses really could make decisions better than a smaller elite of educated citizens who had the time and money to engage in full-time public life. But one has to appreciate how much dedication and attention it must have demanded to participate in such meetings – sure, we can’t be too optimistic that all voters really understood the issues, but even being there and following complex arguments for several hours demands considerable commitment and patience. It’s hard to calculate numbers, but a very rough estimate might suggest that it was realistic to expect 10% of all adult men with full citizen status to attend at least the more important meetings. This may look like a low turnout, but the commitment expected in this case simply doesn’t compare with the requirement to turn up once a year at most and leave a cross on a piece of paper, which regularly seems to be too much for 30-40% of our electorate.
In our first year module on Classical Athens, my colleague Tracey Rihll and I put our students through a crude simulation of this directly democratic process of decision making. We wanted to make sure that the debate actually matters, which is why we make the group of about 120 students draft their own exam paper by means of an Athenian-style assembly meeting.
The effect on the students is always fascinating – and many come away with the question how the Athenians could ever run their affairs in this way. Of course, our students are not experienced Athenian citizens, the whole procedure is not institutionalised and some of the ground rules have to be improvised on the spot, but what strikes most of them is how cumbersome the process is, how some will find it much easier to have their opinion heard and their proposal adopted, and how long it can take to tame the initial chaos of proposals and turn it into a list of questions which will give them the best chance to show how well they have understood what we taught them. We always hear frustrated comments about the process: some years ago a student tried to propose a motion to put the teachers back in charge and just let us draft the exam paper – they were, in essence, choosing tyranny over the cumbersome democratic process. One year, some people tried to stage (with tongue firmly in cheek, but still) an oligarchic coup and take over the decision making process.
The students often fail to appreciate that in the end, they usually do manage to draft a reasonable exam paper with six questions within about 45 minutes, which is actually rather efficient, given the complexity of the task.
I think what one learns particularly from such an improvised version of democracy is how important it is to have a set of rules and procedures in place, how important it is for everybody to understand what these rules are and to use them with goodwill and the interest of the group in mind, and for all to engage in a constant process of scrutiny – with participants being willing to understand and police the procedures while mainly focusing on immediate business at hand.
So yes, let’s hear it for the ostensibly boring constitutional amendments: the Athenians knew how to make fun of themselves for being permanently obsessive about laws and lawsuits, but they were proud of the fact that their system allowed them to scrutinise their leaders and (it has to be said) each other, too. When I sit and follow a debate about the intricacies of Liberal Democrat constitutional clauses, I can see the funny side of the apparently endless obsession with getting such details right. But in the end, this is a crucial part of the democratic process: democracy doesn’t come easy, and it certainly demands a long attention span, attention to detail and a good deal of patience.