Power & the People book jacket

Power & the People

We are excited to bring you a little taster of the brilliant new book Power & the People by Alev Scott and Andronike Makres ahead of publication on 14th November and welcoming them both to Stanfords London for an evening of discussion on Wednesday 13th November at 7:00pm.

Helping us understand present political issues by exploring the past, this is not to be missed!


Brexit in Ancient Greece

In 416 BC, the tiny but astonishingly self-confident Aegean island of Melos tried to negotiate a deal to remain independent from an alliance of Greek states controlled by Athens. For ten years, Athens had repeatedly demanded that Melos agree to join a tax-paying alliance of Greek states known as the Delian League, but the Melians refused, declaring that they would never give up their sovereignty, and predicting that they would be rescued by Athens’ rival of Sparta in the nick of time anyway. The talks failed and the frustrated Athenians slaughtered everyone on the island.

The Greek historian Thucydides’ account of these doomed negotiations, known as the Melian Dialogue, has long been famous as an exercise in realpolitik, and for the Athenians’ expression of the fact that they could do what they wanted because they were the more powerful side – ‘The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must’ (commonly but inaccurately characterized as the principle of ‘might is right’). This came to have particular relevance in 2015 for modern Greeks during the bailout negotiations with the European Commission, but most recently, it has become an eerily apt metaphor for the negotiations between the British government and the EU in the lead-up to Brexit. Melos never joined the Delian League, unlike Britain and the EU, but the negotiating style of the two – and their insistence on sovereignty even in the face of disaster – are strikingly similar.

In the following excerpt of the Dialogue, it is hard not to substitute the Athenians for the EU, and Britain for Melos:

ATHENS/EU: ‘We are shocked that while you said that you would take counsel concerning your survival, you have said not one thing that gives men confidence to think that they will be saved. Rather your strongest arguments are what you hope lies in the future, whereas your actual resources are too insignificant to confront those resources arrayed against you. You will show a great lack of common sense unless, after we retire, you decide something more sensible than all of this. Surely you will not fall into that sense of disgrace that is most destructive for men facing shameful and manifest dangers. For in many cases, men have their eyes open to the dangers ahead of them, but this thing called disgrace, by the power of a seductive name, has drawn these men into a state where they have surrendered to the phrase, while in fact they fall willingly into hopeless disaster, and earn for themselves a disgrace more shameful in folly than in misfortune.

‘This, if you consider properly, you will guard against, and you will suppose that it is not unseemly to submit when the greatest city offers you reasonable terms, keeping your own territory as tributary allies, and not, when you are given the choice between war or security, favouring the worse option: as those who do not yield to their equals, who comport themselves well towards their superiors, and act moderately towards their inferiors, are most successful. Think it over, then, even after we’ve withdrawn, and keep this constantly in your mind, that you are deliberating about your country, concerning which a single country will depend on a single decision for success or ruin.’

The Athenians withdrew from the conference, and the Melians, left to themselves, reached a decision that was much the same as before, and gave this reply:

‘Our decision, Athenians, is the same as it was at the first. We will not in a matter of moments give away the freedom of a city which has been inhabited for seven hundred years, but by trusting in the favour of the gods, which has preserved it until now, and in the assistance of men, that is, the Spartans, we will try to save ourselves. We ask that we be friends, enemies to neither side, and that you leave our country after making whatever treaty seems suitable to both sides.’

Such did the Melians respond: but the Athenians, just as they were leaving from the conference, said: ‘Judging from your decision, it seems to us that you have the unique ability to see the future more clearly than what is sitting right before your eyes, and to consider what is out of sight as something that has already come to pass, simply because you wish it so. And what you have entrusted most in the Spartans − your fortune and hope− so also in these will you find yourselves most deceived.’

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