Politicians in a Fix

David Runciman

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?

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