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December 31, 2004

An Agenda for Governmental Reform in 2005: Lessons from Classical Athens, Afghanistan, and the American Libertarian Party

Posted by S. J. Masty

Governmental reform can draw its inspiration from the most unlikely sources - in this case Classical Athens, Afghanistan, and the American Libertarian Party. S. J. Masty proposes three somewhat mischievous - but well-tested - innovations to British governance for 2005: Ostracism, the Camel-Step, and Tick "None of the Above".

Some of the best elements of classical democracy have been forgotten and one is ostracism. Periodically, Athenian legislators would declare an ostracism election. There were no set candidates, anyone entitled to vote could cast his ballot for anyone he chose, and if more than 6,000 people voted altogether, the exercise was declared valid and whoever had the most votes was banished whether the winner had two votes or two thousand. Whoever was ostracized was made to leave Athens for ten years but allowed to keep his property and go wherever else he wanted. Oftentimes the legislature cancelled an ostracism, but only after two years or more in order to let the public have its brief respite from whomever they voted out.

Plutarch tells us that a moral and aristocratic judge, named Aristides the Just, rumbled enough crooked and populist politicians that they stirred up local sentiment against him. Then, on the day of an ostracism vote, a blind man asked Aristides to fill in his ballot, saying that he wished to banish Aristides the Just. Unidentified but still just, Aristides wrote down his own name, put the pottery ballot shard into the clay pot, then asked why the blind man wanted to banish Aristides the Just. The blind man shrugged, and in a rather Pythonesque way said:

Oi don't 'ave anything against 'im in particular, guv. I'm just bleedin' sick and tired of hearin' everybody call 'im 'The Just'.
Apparently many concurred and Aristides was banished.

Obviously this country is too big, and modern society too diverse, to need but one ostracism election. Some could be held locally and some nationally. Nationally, there should be ostracisms in each of several sectors after all, why should people be made to choose among, say, Richard Branson, Ken Livingstone, Princess Michael of Kent and Vinnie Jones when one could temporarily banish all four? And what is ten years anyhow? All of them (pace Jones) have irritated us for at least thirty years so far.

Democratic ostracism would fast become our favourite quasi-lottery, and the public and the press would soon forget the one that builds Neo-Palladian public lavatories and pays people to pickle sharks. Any large-scale activity that impoverishes the poor, panders to the rich and squanders money is naturally popular in Britain, but ostracism would please the vindictive a much larger group altogether.

Chattering about candidates for the next ostracism ballot would become a national obsession, at work and at dinner parties, in columns and interviews. And why not? Athens was no more than a village. So if technology has made modern Britain into something similar, why not temporarily relieve ourselves of village pests?

The Camel-Step
Whatever one thinks of Afghans, they have been around for quite some time: their art goes back 35,000 years, their tribal democracy may be 3000 years old, and Herodotus mentioned some tribes by name as early as 500 BC. But they have never been as fierce as their carefully-cultivated reputation suggests, and their tradition called 'making a camel step' is a unique stroke of genius.

Within living memory, a traditional Pushtoon gentlemen sometimes had enemies who were simply too important to kill, lest it incur the wrath of a distant authority, or at very least start a series of reciprocal tribal vendetti that would make life considerably less pleasant for both sides for generations to come. Yet if you caught such an enemy red-handed, and had the power to slay him but chose not to, others would interpret that as an admission of weakness and no end of trouble would ensue as numerous small-fry tested your honour.

The answer was to summon your enemy, invite a few important observers, then command him to remove his baggy, Afghan trousers and sit on the ground. Then he was free to go home and all was forgiven and forgotten. All except for the mark that his bottom left in the dust, which resembled a camel's footprint only larger. That remained for as long as a couple of days, depending on wind and weather.

It certainly lasted long enough for the visiting dignitaries to take a long look at it over a nice cup of green tea, and perhaps to compare and contrast it (size, shape, depth and so forth) to memories of another camel-step made thirty years earlier by the miscreant's equally irritating Uncle Habib. It surely lasted long enough to bring the women out of the family compound, let them see it and go back into the harem laughing raucously like a flock of crows. Under ideal meteorological conditions, you could send your younger cousin around the nearby villages, inviting all and sundry to drop by for a light lunch the next day, knowing that they would soon pass the tale up the long, long lines of extended family reaching at least from Jalalabad to Kandahar or even Herat. A local wag might even compose a poem or song about it, possibly comparing the enemy to a full moon.

The miserable fellow would almost certainly trouble you no more. Throughout the next year most people would giggle in his presence, or playfully pretend that there was some dust on the back of his trousers. But even if they were respectfully silent, he would suspect that they were laughing at him behind his back because they almost certainly were. And Pushtoons never let one forget this sort of thing.

This brilliant little piece of cultural problem-solving was applied rarely, crushing the egotism that so often leads to serial misbehaviour. It served as punishment to one, as warning to some, as amusement to many and left no one injured physically. Britain needs this desperately.

Of course the green tea and the baggy shalwar trousers and the swashbuckling turbans would be out of place here our newborn tradition must be branded with our individuality. So the miscreant might be marched down Whitehall by a regimental pipe band and a few dozen mounted Guardsmen. We might recruit a passing Dimbleby to describe it for broadcast, as David Blunkett (or whomever) was led into Parliament Square where a patch of turf had been ceremoniously removed and some dry sand laid down for the print. Then the Mayor of London might say a few cautionary words (unless Mr Livingstone was the person condemned to make the camel-step).

After the trumpets sounded and the fellow's trousers were safely raised again, busloads of schoolchildren could be shown the imprint and taught how abusing the public trust results in humiliation. Scaled-down plaster models could be sold as humorous gift items, possibly double-lobed ashtrays. These would soon trade for considerable sums on Ebay. However we might think twice before casting the originals into concrete pavements along Whitehall, as they do with movie-stars' hands in Hollywood, lest the indentations fill with water and freeze in wintertime, causing passersby to slip and fall.

Tick 'None of the Above'
America's Libertarians come up with patently goofy ideas that stealthily gain credibility while the progenitors remain thought of as, well, goofy. One is the legalisation of cannabis. Another is for a box marked 'None of the Above' to be placed on every ballot.

In this perennial proposal, a voter could choose 'none of the above' as one might otherwise select a candidate. If a majority of voters prefer 'none of the above', the election would be postponed for another 90 days or so, while the political parties found new candidates but none of the recently-defeated candidates would be permitted to stand for office for some time to come.

Suddenly, we would be spared the dismal choice of Howard or Blair or Kennedy. We could send the political parties back to the drawing board - we could demand that they reshuffle the deck and deal us a new hand of jokers. Even if people voted 'no' several times in succession, civil servants would still continue to go about their business and the rest of the country would learn just how 'indispensable' these parliamentarians are. If absolutely necessary, the House of Lords could step in where adult supervision was needed.

More importantly, it would reverse a kind of negative dynamic plaguing modern Western democracy, a kind of downwards competition where a political party need only be 'less-worse' than its competitor. Nowadays it is rather as my smug Royal Bank of Scotland branch manager explained:

the other high-street banks will treat you just as badly as we do.
But with this electoral reform, 'none of you lot' would be an option and oftentimes the most appealing one.

S. J. Masty advises foreign governments on strategic communications.

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