Politicians in a Fix
Valéry Giscard d’Estaing begins his generally sensible if utterly hideous preamble to the new draft European Constitution with a line from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. ‘Our Constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people.’ It is hard to know what to make of this. In any other context one would have to suppose it was intended ironically. That at least is how the words must have been intended by their author. Although Giscard’s text attributes the line straightforwardly to Thucydides, it is not the historian himself speaking here, but Pericles, in his celebrated funeral oration for the Athenian dead. Thucydides allows the Athenians to be told that theirs is a true democracy by the individual who had, with his oratorical gifts and other political skills, taken it over, leaving them with ‘in name a democracy, but in reality a government in the hands of the first man’. One presumes Giscard knows this, unless the preamble to his preamble was chosen by some exhausted functionary from the dictionary of useful quotations for occasions when jokes are not required. But then again, as, on this occasion, jokes were not required, it is difficult to understand why Giscard would have included this one. Constitutions are not usually ironic documents, and this draft is no exception. So what was he thinking of?
Vol. 25 No. 15 · 7 August 2003
Those interested in the ‘initiative’ type of referendum mentioned by David Runciman (LRB, 10 July) might like to dip into the Swiss Constitution, which, in Articles 138 to 142, sets out the uses of the initiative (changes in the Constitution requested by 100,000 citizens) and the referendum proper, the latter coming in two versions: compulsory (changes in the Constitution and laws that have to be put to the vote) and facultative (when a vote on new laws or treaties is requested at the federal level by 50,000 citizens or eight cantons). These tools are open to abuse, by powerful interest groups for instance, but citizens called to the ballot box several times a year are not so easily duped. It is true that low turn-outs are worrying: not so long ago there were plebiscites in parts of Europe with participation/approval rates of 99.9 per cent. But does the right of vote not also include the right to abstain?
David Runciman wonders what to make of Giscard’s prefacing of the draft European Constitution with a well-known line attributed to Pericles from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. Since this is the story of democracy subverted by demagogues, chancers and mediocrities on the make, any reference to it in the European context is happily apt.
Leeds Metropolitan University
David Runciman mentions that Paul Scofield played the writer Carl van Doren in the film Quiz Show. In fact, Scofield played Carl's brother, the poet and critic Mark van Doren, a professor of English at Columbia and the father of Charles, the quiz contestant who was inveigled into cheating. After the scandal Charles van Doren went to work for the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Vol. 25 No. 16 · 21 August 2003
David Runciman (LRB, 10 July) is wrong to say that ‘the first referendum held in the British Isles took place in Northern Ireland in 1973.’ There were referendums on Sunday licensing in Wales in the 1960s.