Peter Jones

The Romans did politics properly

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After 14 years in power, the Tory party still does not seem to know how to serve everyone’s interests, even its own. After 14 years out of power, the Labour party’s one consolation is that, for all Angela Rayner’s best efforts, it could hardly do worse. Might a new model for selecting MPs help? After Brexit, ancient Greek democracy is a dead duck; but the Romans invented the republican system and that might have something to be said for it.

To reach the top job as consul, one had to begin at the bottom, the posts lasting one year (there had to be a gap of a fixed number of years between posts). Aged 30, one could bid to become a quaestor (20 posts), with financial and legal responsibilities; if elected, one also joined the Senate for life (which proposed all legislation, enacted only by the vote of a People’s assembly).

At 36 one could move up to aedile (four posts), when one became responsible for the running of Rome: its streets, markets, sewers, aqueducts, weights and measures, grain supply, public games and much else. At 40 one could stand as praetor (eight posts) and run the Roman civil and criminal courts. Only at 42 could one have a shot at consul (two posts: this number was fixed, the others varied). The consulship gave one supreme power over the army and, effectively, everything else.

The result was that anyone aiming to become consul had gathered behind him enormous experience and wide connections in every post essential for the running of a large and complicated city. Even after the collapse of the republic, the system largely survived, though controlled by the emperor’s inner ring.

To provide experienced MPs, one might wonder whether the parties should draw on those who had been in local government (there were only 16 such in 2015) or even the civil service. Some would say: we do not want professional career politicians. Do we then want amateur ones? Perhaps we would rather prefer expert ones. But how do they learn political expertise? Some master classes from Sir Ed Davey, perhaps?