Episode 609 Shall We Try Athenian Democracy?

Hugh Pope spent two years editing and publishing his late father’s book about Athenian democracy. He became convinced that it is a superior form of governance that can be adopted even today, and indeed it is being used as citizens’ assemblies, which government sometimes establish as a way of reaching consensus about issues that could not be addressed through regular representative institutions.


Hugh Pope



Metta Spencer: Introduces Hugh Pope, who recently moved to Brussels and became the Chief of External Affairs at UK Plan. They discuss Hugh’s work on editing and publishing his father’s manuscript, “Keys to Democracy,” which took a couple of years. Metta emphasizes the impact of the book, describing it as one of the best she read all year.

Hugh Pope: Thanks Metta for the introduction. He talks about how democracy is often misunderstood and that his father’s book helped him see it differently. His father’s work on democracy was seen as unconventional because it focused on direct democracy, which was not taken seriously at the time.

Metta Spencer: Reflects on Hugh’s father’s distinguished academic career and how his ideas on direct democracy were considered bizarre. She mentions his father’s status as a respected professor at Oxford.

Hugh Pope: Agrees and elaborates on how his father’s work on democracy was ahead of its time. He mentions that other countries like Switzerland had more direct democratic systems and that similar ideas were being explored independently in places like the US and Germany. He notes that modern representative democracy has many inefficiencies and people are increasingly looking for alternative systems.

Metta Spencer: Brings up the challenges of modern representative democracy and the potential for direct democracy. She mentions citizens’ assemblies and the issues with representative government.

Hugh Pope: Describes the principles of Athenian democracy, where citizens were chosen by lot to serve in various governmental roles. He explains the process and how it ensured no one could predict who would be in power, reducing corruption.

Metta Spencer: Expresses interest in citizens’ assemblies and their potential to improve democratic processes. She mentions modern experiments with citizens’ assemblies and their success in making reasonable recommendations, even though these recommendations are not always implemented.

Hugh Pope: Explains the growing interest in citizens’ assemblies and their role in providing informed public opinion. He highlights successful examples in Ireland and ongoing experiments in France and Germany. He notes the importance of these assemblies in addressing complex issues and engaging citizens in meaningful deliberations.

Metta Spencer: Asks about the implementation of citizens’ assembly recommendations and whether governments commit to adopting them. She expresses concern about the orchestration of these assemblies and the potential biases in setting them up.

Hugh Pope: Discusses the importance of framing the right questions for citizens’ assemblies and ensuring they are relevant and nonpartisan. He mentions the critical role of experienced organizers and the need for proper facilitation to ensure productive deliberations. He notes that while there have been some successes, the integration of citizens’ assemblies into government decision-making is still evolving.

Metta Spencer: Reflects on the potential of using technology, like Zoom, for citizens’ assemblies and the importance of building mutual trust among participants.

Hugh Pope: Emphasizes the value of in-person meetings for building trust and the significant impact of citizens’ assemblies in fostering common purpose among diverse participants. He underscores the potential of these assemblies to address deeply polarized issues through collective deliberation.



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