Peter Jones

Is government wise to follow the will of the people?

Getty Images

Given the failure of all political parties to deal with the Post Office’s wrongful conviction of so many postmasters, ITV’s re-enaction of the story has been a triumph for democracy (Greek demo-kratia ‘people-power’) in rousing the people to force parliament to act. But will justice be done by the popular demand that parliament overrides past legal process by mass exoneration?

Classical Athens (5th-4th century bc) saw the invention of the world’s first and last democracy, in which all citizens (defined as registered Athenian males over 18) met almost weekly to take every decision in the sovereign Assembly about how their city state should be run, while those over 30 also held sway over the courts. In 406 bc, the Athenian generals failed to pick up their dead after a sea battle against the Spartans. The Athenian Assembly was incensed, and Callixenus proposed that those generals be tried en bloc; but since that was illegal (they had to be tried individually), it was rejected. Some applauded this move, but the majority, as Xenophon tells us, ‘shouted out that it was an outrage if the people were not allowed to do what it wanted’. The Assembly’s officers initially held firm but (with the exception of Socrates) caved in under pressure, and the generals who had not fled Athens were executed.

But some months later, the Assembly admitted that it should first have revoked the law against en bloc trials. Knowing it had done wrong, it lodged proceedings against those who had persuaded them to act otherwise. It summoned Callixenus and his supporters to stand trial for misleading them, but they escaped, and the trial was never heard.

Although Athenian citizens were judge and jury of all matters political and legal, this event hints at a sense of what would become the ‘separation of powers’ – the sovereignty of our parliament and the total independence of our courts (our bulwark against tyranny: contrast states where they go hand in glove). That must not be compromised, but postmasters must also get genuine justice.