The Athenian Option

I’ve just finished reading a very interesting an provocative little book called The Athenian Option, which offers a radical vision of how to renew Britain’s democracy.

The context within which this book was written was the need to reform Britain’s unelected second chamber, the House of Lords. The authors of the book, Anthony Barnett and Peter Carty, were proposing a way to do this even before Tony Blair’s New Labour party came to power in 1997, promising to reform  the House of Lords in its manifesto. Despite being well into it’s third Parliament, New Labour hasn’t done much about it yet, and has even failed to offer any real proposals. Although it has removed voting rights from the hereditary peers, the result of this is that the House of Lords is still stuffed full of people appointed by the government.

The need for reform is now greater than ever.

Over the past year or so, we have seen dramatically increasing disillusionment with the political establishment, which has been handing out billions of pounds of tax payers’ money to the profligate banking sector causing a ballooning public debt and the imminent prospect of savage cuts in public spending with consequent reductions in jobs and services.

Meanwhile, under New Labour, the culture of cronyism has led to the creation of a myriad pointless quangos doing their best to strangle the entire country with red tape. Although Gordon Brown stated in 2004 that he was going to reduce  bureaucracy, the number of civil servants in the UK has grown by about 12% (from 465,7000 to 522,930) between then and now. If the amount of bureaucracy within the British university system is anything to go by, the burden of the constant processes of evaluation, assessment and justification is out of all proportion to what useful stuff actually gets done. This isn’t all the fault of New Labour . It started with previous Conservative governments who viewed the public services as a kind of enemy within, to be suspected, regulated and subdued. However, there’s no denying that it has got worse in recent years.

There is an even more sinister side to all this, in the steady erosion of civil liberties through increased clandestine surveillance, detention without trial and the rest of the paraphernalia of paranoid goverment. Big Brother isn’t as far off as we’d all like to think.

The recent furore over MP’s expenses has led to further disgust with the behaviour of our elected representatives, many of whom seem to be more interested in lining their own pockets than in carrying out their duties as our elected representatives.

The fact is that the political establishment has become so remote from its original goal of serving the people that it is now regarded with near-total contempt by a large fraction of the population. Politics now primarily serves itself and, of course, big business. It needs to be forced to become more accountable to ordinary people. This is why I think the suggestion of radical reform along the lines suggested by Barnett and Carty is not only interesting, but something like it is essential if we are to survive as a democracy.

What they propose is to abolish the House of Lords as the Second Chamber, and replace it with a kind of jury selected by lottery from the population in much the same way that juries are selected for the crown courts except that they would be much larger, of order a thousand people or so.  This is called the Athenian Option because in ancient Athens all citizens could vote (although I should add that there were about 5000 citizens and about 100,000 slaves, and women couldn’t vote even if they weren’t slaves, so the name isn’t at all that appropriate).

Selection of representatives from the electoral roll would be quite straightforward to achieve.  Service should be mandatory, but the composition of the Second Chamber could be refreshed sufficiently frequently that participation should not be too onerous for any individual. It may even be possible for the jury not to have to attend a physical `house’ anyway. They could vote by telephone or internet, although safeguards would be needed to prevent fraud or coercion. It would indeed probably be better if each member of the panel voted independently and in secret anyway.

The central body of government would continue to be a representative Parliament similar to the current House of Commons. The role of the jury would be  limited to voting on legislation sent to it by the House of Commons, which would continue to be elected by a General Election as it is at present. Laws passed by the Commons could not become law unless approved by the juries.

Turnout at British general elections has been falling steadily over the past two decades. Apathy has increased  because the parliamentary machine has become detached from its roots. If nothing is done to bring it back under popular control, extremist parties like the British National Party will thrive and the threat to our democracy will grow further.

Living in Wales, I would add another element to the argument. The creation of regional assemblies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland has not been as successful as it might have been because it has resulted not in more democracy, but in more politicians. The Welsh Assembly has little real power, but has fancy offices and big salaries for its members and we have it as well as Westminster and the local Councils.

We also have a European Parliament, again with very little real power but with its own stock of overpaid and self-important politicians elected by the tiny fraction of the electorate that bothers to vote.

My solution to this mess would be to disband the regional assemblies and create regional juries in their place. No legislation would be enacted in Wales unless passed by the Welsh jury, likewise elsewhere.

To be consistent, the replacement House of Lords should be an English jury, although perhaps there could be regional structures within England too. We would therefore have one representative house, The House of Commons, and regional juries for Wales, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland. This would create a much more symmetrical structure for the governance of the United Kingdom, putting an end to such idiocies as the West Lothian Question.

Of course many details would need to be worked out, but it seems to me that this proposal makes a lot of sense. It retains the political party system in the House of Commons where legislation would be debated and amended before being sent to the popular juries. The new system would, however, be vastly cheaper than our current system. It would be much fairer and more democratic. It would make the system of government more accountable, and it would give citizens a greater sense of participation in and responsibility for the United Kingdom’s political culture. Politics is too important to be left to politicians.

On the other hand, in order to set it up we would need entire sections of the current political structure to vote themselves out of existence. Since they’re doing very nicely out of the current arrangements, I think change is unlikely to be forthcoming through the usual channels.

Anyone care for a revolution?

31 Responses to “The Athenian Option”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:


    You wrote: “Although it has removed voting rights from the hereditary peers, the result of this is that the House of Lords is still stuffed full of people appointed by the government.” What is the word “still” doing in that sentence? Labour the hereditary peers precisely BECAUSE they weren’t appointed by the government.

    The problem with the Commmons system is that it will tend to attract power-seekers rather than peiople who want to serve the country. The hereditary system definitively breaks that but is liable to produce incompetents. It seems to be that the weaknesses of the two systems used to mitigate each other quite well – far too well for ‘New’ Labour, who are really only old Labour with marketing. The Minister who has handled Defence affairs pretty badly recently was a cart plant shop steward in the 1970s. Anybody younger than about 45 will remember that these wre the people who systematically and often delberately wrecked our industrial base and productivity, (and then blamed the financiers).

    You also speak of the “imminent prospect of savage cuts in public spending with consequent reductions in jobs and services.” I see that as a non sequitur. I *want* savage cuts in publis spending because I want taxes down – taxes fall hardest on the poor. Will that necessarily ravage services? As you rightly point out, we have too many civil servants, and that number has ballooned during Labour’s office yet services have not improved proportionately. Many of them exist mainly to tell the taxpayers who pay their salaries what those taxpayers can’t do. Sack most of them, make the rest work to the same age as everybody else before retiring, and remove their inflation-proofed pensions. (As a bit of history, public spending realy began to take off under Harold Wilson – a decade after the NHS was already in place.) All this is why the Tories regarded the public services with suspicion. Perhaps it is cynical of me to suggest that people in public services are more likely to vote Labour and that public service employees have risen significantly as a faction of the population in the last 10 years…

    I agree, obviously, that the “West Lothian” issue is anomalous and must be sorted – again I am simply being cynical in suggesting that such a Scot-dominated Cabinet as we have seen over the last 10 years has not done this. And while we’re at it, let’s make sure that people in town and country get to vote for MPs in equal proportion to their numbers (yet another Labour gerrymander, since country tends not to vote Labour). Also restore power to local government by shifting local services to local taxes, ie reduce income tax and raise council tax. At present council tax is merely a top-up of allocation from the centre, and he who pays the piper calls the tune. This again causes country to subside town for no fair reason.

    Repeal any law that bans free speech iunless it directly incites violence against persons.


  2. telescoper Says:


    My point about the House of Lords was that the life peers are all appointees of one government or another. Removing the hereditaries (most of whom were Tory voters) didn’t make the house independent.

    The problem with public spending cuts is that the useless people (the bureaucrats) will probably be immune from them because they will decide where the cuts fall. I’d like to see more teachers, doctors, policemen and the rest but less penpushers.

    I agree that Local Government funding is anomalous. The level of Council Tax is basically determined by the shortfall from the government grant.
    However, I’d be in favour of scrapping Council Tax in favour of a local income tax. Taxes only fall hardest on the poor in a system like ours that favours the rich…



  3. Anton Garrett Says:


    Hereditaries *were* totally independent – their party afilliations were freely rather than coercively chosen. Not a perfect system, but none is.

    You wrote: “The problem with public spending cuts is that the useless people (the bureaucrats) will probably be immune from them because they will decide where the cuts fall. I’d like to see more teachers, doctors, policemen and the rest but less penpushers.” A solution to that is privatisation of services, although that brings different problems.

    I want to see more policemen only if the laws are good.


  4. Bryn Jones Says:

    Oh dear, Peter.

    You are absolutely right that fundamental reform – effectively replacement – of the House of Lords is essential.

    I’m not entirely enthusiastic about your suggestion of appointing citizens under a jury-type system to form a replacement chamber to the House of Lords.

    Of course, the House of Lords currently carries out a number of vitally important functions, though slightly fewer than a few weeks ago following the transfer of the powers of the Law Lords to the new Supreme Court. The Lords act as a legislative chamber, revising bills and introducing bills of their own. The members have broad and deep expertise in public affairs, which enable them to identify deficiencies in proposed legislation. They scrutinise the executive actions of government (but do not obstruct them). They provide (in principle) a legislative block to excessive actions by the Commons. These functions could all be transferred to an appropriate replacement chamber, though no new chamber would be able to replicate all the characteristics of the current Lords (be those characteristics positive or – as in some cases – negative).

    There would be some advantages under your proposed system. The jury would be representative of the general population, socially and in terms of political opinions, which the Lords are not. The representatives would not be there to pursue political careers or to wield power.

    There would, however, be disadvantages compared with the Lords, and more importantly, with an elected chamber based on a representative democracy. Jurors would be appointed with little experience of legislative procedures and would take much of their limited period in the chamber to learn the process. Equally, many would have little experience of public affairs. Political party structures within the chamber would be minimal or non-existent. Therefore there would be little coherent party policy and no discipline behind policy (of course, the party structures in the House of Commons today are much too strong, but the new chamber would err in the opposite direction). With members voting according to their own opinions at the time, there would be a lack of responsibility for their decisions, and the decisions may even be mutually inconsistent and change erratically over time. Jurors would have to give up significant periods of time to the task, which could be disruptive to their lives and careers. Costs of moving jurors to London would be high. Alternatively, if the voting is done at a distance, there is a danger that jurors would not discuss issues with their colleagues and would not devote sufficient time to their duties.

    Let us turn now to your comments about the devolved nations. We should be careful not to use the “regional” to describe issues relating to Scotland and Wales, or to Ireland as a whole. An important motivation behind the establishment of the devolved chambers was to respond to the national dimension.

    The purposes of the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly and the National Assembly for Wales are fundamentally different to that of the House of Lords. They all, like the Commons, select and maintain executives. They must sustain governments capable of pursuing consistent, half-thought-out policies. Replacing them with jury chambers would cause chaos. Indeed the legislative powers of the Welsh Assembly are very limited at present: its primary purpose is to produce an executive and scrutinise it.

    Your comment about the growth of quangos under New Labour is absolutely correct when discussing England. However, Wales and Scotland were governed by a bloated quangocracy before democratic devolution: the new parliaments allowed for “bonfires of the quangos”. Democratic devolution has enormously extended democracy in Scotland and Wales, and would have done so even more in Wales had Labour not chosen a minimalist devolution model.

    The West Lothian Question is the result of British political parties lacking the courage to implement a federal constitution for the United Kingdom, either because of a reluctance to devolve most of the powers of the House of Commons to an English Parliament, or because of concerns about how appropriate a federal system would be for a sovereign state in which one of the federal state units would contain as much as 80% of the entire population.

    Your suggestion of separate legislative jury panels for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would effectively end the concept of United Kingdom legislation. This would prevent the United Kingdom from ratifying international treaties, or providing legislative cover for policies in fields such as defence, social security, taxation and macroeconomic policy. That may be a good thing, but the consequences would be profound.

    Yes, I’ll go for a revolution, but not for yours.

  5. telescoper Says:


    Of course I didn’t expect everyone to agree, but I really don’t understand some of your comments and others were caused by me not explaining the model fully.

    For a start there would still be an elected chamber based on representative democracy, the House of Commons. Indeed I would prefer to see the powers of that chamber increased compared the current situation. It would be the chief seat of government and would be the body that ratifies treaties and the rest. It would not end the concept of United Kingdom legislation. I don’t see how you can have got that idea, which you expressed in your last point.

    Second, the jury system would indeed have to be run in such a way that Joe Public could understand the procedures, but this happens in court anyway. Experienced persons would be needed to conduct the proceedings but I don’t think their job would be too onerous. I think procedure can be kept to a minimum, dispensing with the arcane fripperies that plague our current system.

    I envisage a system where there is indeed no party structure, no whips, and every juror has a free vote. I see this as a strength not a weakness. The chamber is to provide a genuinely democratic check on the first chamber, not to provide another opportunity for career politicians to fill their boots.

    It would not be necessary to transport the jurors en masse panel to London.

    As for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, I wasn’t arguing for an end to devolved government at all. I think there could still be executives, perhaps elected at the same time as the General Election. However the assemblies would be replaced with jury panels. My comment about the regions was intended to address the problem that England is the more populous nation so I wasn’t sure one panel would be sufficient.

    I also think you overestimate the capabilities of the House of Lords as srutineers of legislation. The useful work in that regard is now and would continue to be done by select committees. The proposed system would however prevent governments using the whip to force legislation through the second chamber.

    I am undecided whether the best plan is to have standing juries (for a short period) or to convene a separate panel for each piece of legislation.

    Of course there is a danger than some jurors might try to disrupt the system or not take their responsibilities seriously. But are you trying to tell me that this doesn’t happen with professional politicians? Is voting inconsistently any worse than mindlessly following the party whip?

    Finally I should say that the separation of the legislature from the judiciary is by no means a bad thing. I would prefer to have the legal system as from the Second Chamber as possible.


  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    The elephant in the room in this discussion is the monarchy.

  7. Random ‘juries’ cannot be accounted for or predicted or negotiated with – which means a lottery as to which legislation gets through and which does not. There is no accountability, you can vote either crazily or sensibly and a few weeks later go back home exhilarated with the exercise of power but without any adverse consequences for your vote if the result was (in the long term) undesirable. Athens may have worked better because it was so small that your vote would not go unremembered.

    Secret ‘jury’ voting is even worse… power without any responsibility at all? Surely that would even further erode interest in the Commons, since whatever was proposed in the lower house would be subject to the whim of literally anonymous and random people for approval. No, I’m afraid representative democracy with a class of politicians is here to stay.

    Perhaps the maximum period without a general election should be reduced to four years, since all this ennui, mauvaise foi and contretemps has happened in the ‘lame duck’ period just before the 5-year term is up. We would see a dramatic improvement in political discourse if the parties were forced to say how they would do things differently when elected. They’ve all forgotten what a manifesto is.

    I have yet to hear a coherent argument why we should not have an elected upper house – on fixed terms, with a significant turnover perhaps every 4 years somewhat like the US Senate, though more democratic and less obstructive. Its role should of course be well-defined so that it does not compete directly with the Commons.

  8. Bryn Jones Says:


    I did understand that the House of Commons would continue.

    The trouble with four separate legislative jury panels would be that they might come to different decisions on United-Kingdom-wide legislation from the Commons. For example, the English jury panel might agree with the Commons in some proposed legislation to clamp down on people claiming incapacity benefit, but the Scottish panel might reject it. What then happens? Does the legislation fail? Does the legislation get implemented in England alone? Or would the four panels be merged into a single panel for United Kingdom legislation?

    We have a parliamentary system, including for the devolved parliaments. That is to say that the representatives elected to a parliament select, maintain and scrutinise the executive. In your proposed system, who would select the Scottish Government (which is now selected by the Scottish Parliament)? The Scottish jury panel of the time? Scottish M.P.s within the House of Commons? A direct presidential-style election for the Scottish First Minister?

    Not all elected representatives today take all their responsibilities seriously, but most do. There are powerful incentives for them to do so, most notably the need for re-election and the threat of deselection by their parties.

    You are absolutely right that the separation of the legislature from the judiciary is a good thing. The replacement of the Law Lords by the Supreme Court is a positive development.

    I have changed my views about the need for parties in recent years, now seeing them as a necessity. I come originally from Ynys Môn (Anglesey). The county council is composed predominantly of independents, elected on the basis of the citizens’ views of individual candidates as people, not on policy. Once elected, the independents have formed a variety of informal groupings, and even formal party-like groupings, for reasons that seem little more than clashing personalities. There is a the usual politicians’ bickering, but not over any clear policy issues. The whole process is beyond the understanding of anyone outside the council itself. The council is failing and some limited intervention by the Welsh Assembly Government has been necessary. This is why I am now a little sceptical of political systems that do not have the discipline imposed by political parties. Of course, the party discipline in the Commons today is much too strong, but some moderate element can be a good thing. These problems, however, need not be present in your proposed system if the jurors do not get together physically in the same place, but instead just vote.

    I don’t think your suggestion would necessarily affect the monarchy … except that the principle of choosing people at random out of the general population could even be extended to choosing a head of state!


  9. telescoper Says:

    It seems to me that these comments take it for granted that the general population are a bunch of idiots not to be trusted at all and whose behaviour will be attempt to wreck the government. In that case why give them a vote at all? And why have juries in the courts? For my part, it’s the politicians I don’t trust….

    Perhaps perversely, I am not as opposed to the monarchy as you might think. The virtue of having the Queen as head of state is that she prevents anyone else from doing that job.

  10. Anton Garrett Says:

    That’s exactly why I am pro-monarchy too: for purely pragmatic reasons. But it’s a lousy position for the monarch: responsibility wtihout power, the opposite of the 1970s shop stewards who wrecked our industrial base.

    I see no reason not to have referenda on everything and dump the House of Commons. The issue then becomes: Who frames the questions? Also, I wonder whether one vote per household rather than per person is worth considering.


  11. Bryn Jones Says:


    Far from it. I consider the general population to be (mostly) intelligent and public spirited. The problem is that individuals without long-term responsibility tend to change their opinions and can support mutually incompatible policies. It is because I trust the general public that I believe in a participatory representative democracy in which the public choose their representatives, ideally giving the electorate control over which candidates of individual parties get elected in multi-member constituencies.

    It is because I have faith in the public that I feel the problem we have in Britain today is that politicians are a public-funded, feather-bedded elite detached from the general public. We need to reduce the power of political parties within an elective representative democracy, for example by capping donations by individuals and corporate bodies (including companies and trade unions) to 10000 pounds per year. That would force parties once more to become mass-membership democratic organisations.

    The solution to the West Lothian Question is the creation of an English Parliament. Of course it would fit slightly awkwardly within a federal structure, given that England contains 80% of the population of the United Kingdom, but that is not an excuse to fail to make the necessary reform. With parliaments for all of the federal states, would we really need a second United Kingdom chamber? Perhaps, perhaps not. If we do, a slimmed down chamber elected on a regional basis with proportional representation would do, and it would be the responsibility of the parties to select candidates who have detailed expertise in public affairs to perform the necessary detailed scrutiny of legislation.

    As for the monarchy, I’m less enthusiastic. The British Monarch represents over a thousand years of English and Scottish history, and should continue, but it is not clear that the monarch should be closely associated with the state. Nor is the monarch fully representative of all parts of the United Kingdom. My personal preference would be for a depoliticised nominal head of state elected by the Commons (rather like it elects the Commons Speaker) who would hold no executive power. The monarch would then be detached from the functions of the state, much as dukes and earls are today.


    • telescoper Says:


      The regional structure you propose is actually very close to what I was trying to argue for. I see the House of Commons continuing as a UK government, but with smaller subsets controlling Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England. I too was bothered by the overwhelming size of the Engish electorate, and suggested breaking it into regions but that’s just an idea.

      However, the big difference is that you want a controlling structure comprising of elected politicians, i.e. the same kind of people in the parliament in the first place. I want this role to be played by ordinary people.

      More politicians is not more democracy. The best way to re-engage citizens with the government of this country is to get them directly involved in it themselves.


  12. Bryn Jones Says:


    My central concern is that a jury panel could not adequately select and maintain executives within each of the nations. We need a parliamentary system for that (if we rightly reject presidential systems for each).


    • telescoper Says:

      I agree. The House of Commons should take the role of Parliament, as it does now. However, I think it should sit together as the UK parliament when dealing with matters affecting the whole country but could split up when dealing with devolved matters. Welsh MPs could then decide on Welsh affairs. The juries would provide corresponding shadows, either as a single UK jury for national leglislation or separately to oversee the national executives.

  13. telescoper Says:


    I think Elephant No. 2 is the European issue. With my proposed system it is very unlikely we would have joined the EU in the first place but it also would have prevented the ratification of subsequent treaties without popular consultation.

    I’d propose juries to replace the European parliament, except that it would end up being too much like Eurovision!


  14. Anton Garrett Says:

    Why not just have a Referendum on big EU questions? Gordon Brown has lied to us about doing that over the last federalisation treaty, and David Cameron is doing his best to bury his commitment to have a referendum on the EU if (as looks increasingly likely) he gets elected.

    Trust the people? We can’t do that, Minister…


  15. Bryn Jones Says:


    I’m not enthusiastic about a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty: if there were one, I’d feel obliged to read the document before voting. That’s the whole document. I’ve got other things I’d rather spend my time doing.


  16. Elections work, if they work at all, because people can be broadly relied on to vote in favour of what they see as their own self-interest over the next few years, so far as any party represents it.

    If you replace ‘party’ with ‘bill’ then it would seem to make equal sense to have a referendum on every piece of legislation. But indeed, who has the time to read every bill and understand what it would actually do when implemented? Would you give the two or three most powerful media barons veto power over every piece of legislation? How a complex bill is portrayed in the media would be a big factor in its popularity. Referenda would be every few weeks, unfortunately it takes a lot longer than that for any issue to be even half understood. An MP who makes an ‘unpopular’ vote may stay around long enough for people to appreciate why the decision was taken, but any ‘unpopular’ bill would be dead on arrival.

    Anyway, the upper chamber doesn’t just say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to bills, it debates and scrutinizes and consults and offers amendments. That would be practically impossible with a random and rapidly-changing membership. Debate is perhaps the essential aspect (and a very Athenian one) – without it one could never understand *why* any bill had been accepted or rejected and what changes would make it more or less acceptable. There has to be at least an illusion of reason and consistency over time.

  17. Anton Garrett Says:


    You seem to be saying that the British people shouldn’t have the option on the Lisbon Treaty – which a majority of them want according to informal polls – because you personally aren’t willing to read it! In that case, don’t vote in the referendum; leave it to those who are willing to immerse themselves in it. Bloggers and the media would repidly find the hotspots in it to help people do that.


  18. Bryn Jones Says:


    That’s very well put.


    P.S. On the issue of failings of the current political system, I note that the infamous floating duck island is visible in the
    satellite images on Google Maps

  19. Bryn Jones Says:


    Were there to be a referendum about the United Kingdom repealing the Lisbon treaty, I really doubt more than a tiny fraction of the electorate would engage in the details of the treaty. The problem with referenda is that they need most of the electorate to be engaged in the debate. Were I to choose not to vote because of a reluctance to suffer the tedium of reading the treaty, other electors would happily vote without having read it.


  20. telescoper Says:

    Such apathy and disengagement is the reason I propose juries instead of referenda for such issues. The adoption of a treaty with such wide-ranging implications should require a positive decision by a majority of the electorate if a referendum is held. If the politicians can’t convince the population to vote in favour of the change, then it shouldn’t happen. I don’t think 50% of a 20% turn out should be enough. It should be 50% of those eligible to vote, those not voting counting as absentions.

  21. Anton Garrett Says:

    We can’t possibly let the people decide what they want can we?

    One reason why I think one vote per household is worth considering I am not sqaying more than that) is that it would trigger debate within many households.

    I believe also that the perfect system does not exist. It is always possible to criticise any proposal, but let those who do so find a better one.

  22. Bryn Jones Says:

    I dislike referenda for their simplistic yes/no character and for the possibility of unscrupulous individuals with influence (politicians and media owners) hoodwinking the public. My views were formed following my experiences of referenda in my early teenage years.

    The Callaghan government proposed establishing elected executive assemblies in Scotland and Wales, but was forced by backbench rebellions to consult the electorates in non-binding referenda.

    The campaigns in 1979 produced splits within the Labour Party, with many backbench members of parliament campaigning vigorously against the proposals. In Wales figures like Neil Kinnock and Leo Abse loudly denounced the proposals. They argued with passion (and irrationality) that an assembly would place the large majority (79%) of people in Wales who did not speak Welsh under the domination of the small (21%) minority who did speak the language (this was at time when civil rights to use Welsh for official purposes were minimal). Their raucous fear raising resonated with many people. The proposed executive assembly was rejected by a 4:1 majority, killing the proposal for a generation.

    The campaign increased sectarian tensions between Welsh speakers and English-only speakers. The result provoked a sense of humiliation among those who felt a loyalty to Wales but not to Britain, and increased among Welsh speakers a sense of persecution. It provoked in the following months a fire-bombing campaign in which over 200 holiday homes in Wales owned by people in England were burnt. A bomb was later placed at the home of the Secretary of State for Wales (fortunately it failed to explode). The referendum campaign seemed to have pushed Wales a lot closer to Northern Ireland.

    With hindsight, the referendum produced the wrong result: a new referendum in 1997 reversed the result (though very narrowly). Wales now has an assembly.

    Scotland in 1979 voted in favour of its proposed assembly, but fewer than 40% of the electorate approved it. Under the provisions of the Scotland Act, Parliament was obliged to reconsider the proposal, and chose to reject it. A majority of those people who had bothered to vote had approved the assembly, but Scotland got no assembly. This led directly to the collapse of the Callaghan government. The new Thatcher government subsequently suffered from criticisms of its legitimacy in Scotland because it governed Scotland despite a (small) majority having voted to transfer power to an assembly.

    Referenda and referendum campaigns, if conducted rationally, can be magnificent demonstrations of democracy, brilliant expressions of the will of the people. Conducted wrongly, they can be used to mislead the public and stir up social tensions. My general preference is therefore for elected representative democracy under which representatives have the courage to take the decisions for which they have been elected.

  23. Anton Garrett Says:


    You “dislike referenda for their simplistic yes/no character and for the possibility of unscrupulous individuals with influence (politicians and media owners) hoodwinking the public.”

    Every vote in a parliament is of yes/no character. As for unscrupulous individuals hoodwinking the public – who is to decide whether the public have been hoodwinked? And aren’t our present politicians unscrupulous? Regarding the media, we now have the internet, and bloggers have essentially overcome the power of the media barons with true people power.

    Yes, power to the people! It’s called Referendums. Questions remain over who decides the issues and wording, but the principle is right.

    I don’t think the Welsh assambly issue did more than reveal latent tensions that were already there. Do the Welsh generally think that paying large salaries to yet another layer of careerist politicians is worth the price of the slightly greater self-determination that they now have?


  24. Bryn Jones Says:


    We’ll have to disagree about the method, although I’m sure we have the same objective: choosing well thought-out policies and enacting carefully-drafted legislation according to the wishes of the citizens. We are not getting much of that at present, and change is needed to achieve it. The trouble, as these discussions have shown, is deciding what that change should be.

    Strong tensions were certainly present in Wales before the 1979 referendum, but the referendum campaign certainly increased them. As for the current Welsh Assembly, I suspect that the people in general have a little respect for it but mildly dislike the politicians because of a general hatred of the political class.


  25. Apologies, I have only just seen this. Many thanks for using The Athenian Option to start this discussion. I’d just like to make a couple of points of clarification about my argument as Bryn Jones assumes the suggestion is for jury peers to be legislators. On the contrary. the starting point is that we insist ONLY the Commons generates legislation. The second chamber would then be selected by sortition. It is important to note that this can be made regionally, and nationally representative as well as having gender equality, ie you can combine random selection with proportional representation by applying the latter to selected communities or categories as indeed the ancient Athenians as they selected from their tribes (of free men).

    The upper chamber would then consider legislation by clear criteria in a well organised process such as that developed by Jim Fishkin in Stanford”s centre for deliberative democracy. They would consider questions such as: is the legislation comprehensible and, more important, will it achieve what the government claims. they would be able to listen to expert as well as political witnesses.


  26. […] But in the end, one thing is inescapable: the method of selection of the Lords – essentially, patronage – is just fundamentally unacceptable in a modern democracy. We need to have a House of Lords candidates for which are picked in some other, better way: either by election via proportional representation (which is Green Party policy, and seems likely to be the route that the Coalition chooses), or by lot (selection, that is, via the so-called ‘Athenian option’, argued for by OK’s Anthony Barnett: see this intriguing review). […]

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