The low turnout at the polls last week for electing police commissioners in England and Wales has sparked new fears for the health of our democracy. The average turnout was 15%, with the figure sinking to 11% in some counties. The Electoral Commission has started an enquiry. Many have accused the public of apathy, whilst critics have attacked the way the campaign was funded and administered.
It is not, however, as if this low turnout is anything unexpected in the wider scheme of things. Since the 1950s in the UK the turnout for general elections has been in decline, falling from nearly 85% in 1950 itself to the low 60s in the last decade. The trend has been repeated in other polls such as the local and European elections. There is clearly a wider malaise in our democracy and public life.
Many might argue that the public’s disengagement from the polls comes down to a sense of disenfranchisement. It doesn’t matter for whom we vote; we will still be rewarded with some meretricious centrist who will more likely than not be in hock to a moneyed conglomerate, ready to pass openly into their employ once he has served his time in public life.
But a small and unsettling observation from the Ancient Greek world suggests a different root to the problem. Reading Austin and Vidal-Naquet’s Economic & Social History of Ancient Greece, I was struck by the point that although the people of Chios were the first in Greece reputed to have bought foreign slaves, they also leave us some of the earliest evidence for a move towards democracy. It is not dissimilar for the case of Athens itself. Although it was, in the 5th century BC, one of the most developed democracies known to history, its dependence on slavery was absolute. The development of “chattel-slavery”, where slaves usually speaking foreign languages were bought and sold as a commodity, seems to go hand-in-hand with the development of city-states and democracy itself.
It seems paradoxical that the same societies could accomodate slavery and the radical freedom of the Athenian democracy all at once. Yet slavery was seen as an adjunct to freedom. Without the labour of the servile class, the free citizen would not have the economic or practical liberty to busy himself about political affairs. The gift of the slave to the citizen was not great wealth, but merely time.
Democracy was born in an age of relative leisure, where there were enough affluent citizens with enough free time to sit in assemblies, councils and courts, meditate and discuss public affairs, and fulfil whatever offices and magistracies came their way. The fact that the birth of democracy required slavery is a reminder that democracy done properly requires time. Perhaps it is simply the increasing lack of this commodity in modern society, rather than apathy or disillusionment with the democratic process, that is the real problem with the system today.