political principlesIn Political Principles and their Practice, which Cambridge University Press in India published some years back, the 3rd chapter (after chapters on the State and the Powers and Functions of Government) was about the Law. However I thought that I would leave that till later, and move on to Chapter 4 because of current concerns about changing the electoral system. This chapter explores systems of representation, but before we look into that, it makes sense to consider what me mean by Democracy, and how it has developed over the years.

The origins of democracy

The word ‘democracy’ comes from two Greek words, ‘demos’ and ‘kratos’, which mean ‘people’ and ‘power’. Thus, by democracy is meant a political system in which power belongs to the people. This is now generally accepted as the best system of government, inasmuch as it is the people who constitute the state, and therefore the government of a state should be in the hands of its people. However, numerous disagreements arise when we try to work out the best mechanisms through which people can exercise their power of government.

Clearly, all the people cannot rule together. Therefore, in a democracy, at any given period some of the people have to rule on behalf of the rest. But choosing some people as representatives of all the others has its problems.

Athens was the first state to have adopted the democratic system of government. They found that when there were elections the wealthy were chosen as leaders. They, therefore, instituted a system in which the representatives were chosen each year by drawing a lot from among all the citizens. This, they felt, led to a more truly representative government rather than the system of elections which gave advantages to the more influential members of society.

Athens functioned effectively for several years in the fifth century BC under this system. But a terrible defeat in 404, in the thirty-year war against the Spartans, led to the downfall of its political system. Some of its citizens felt that the defeat was due to their existing system of government. Since then this system of participatory democracy has never been put forward as a model.

In any case it would be difficult to put the system into practice in larger societies with vast differences among people. Athens was, after all, only a small city-state with a relatively educated population which prided itself on the capabilities of all its citizens. It also excluded women, slaves and foreigners dwelling in the city, from involvement in the democracy. So, the number of those from whom the choices were made was limited. Still, the experiment was interesting, and has since provided a mode of sorts for all democratic societies which aim to maximise participation of people in government.

The next important experiment in democracy was conducted by the Romans. It was a significant stage in the development of democracy, since final authority lay with the representatives elected by the people. Though systems of administration in other parts of the world at the time have been described as democratic, inasmuch as there were councils of elders in villagers or regular consultation of bodies of citizens, these were not institutionalised as ultimate authorities. Power, in the end, lay with kings, and it was from them that others—governors, advisers or elders—derived their authority. In Athens, however, as later in Rome, for nearly five hundred years from the fifth century BC onwards, power actually belonged to the people and to the representatives they chose.

Rome chose its executives through election. When they expelled their king, they decided not to assign supreme authority to any one person in the future. Instead, they elected two principal magistrates known as consuls. Consuls were elected for one-year periods, and initially they could not seek re-election, though later this was allowed after the lapse of a few years.

Initially, as had happened in the Athenian democracy, consuls were chosen from among the wealthy. At first the Romans restricted the consulate to patricians. Patricians was the title used to describe the influential families that had established themselves in the city as leaders at the time the kings were expelled. In a sense then, Rome can be described in the early period of its democracy as an oligarchy (Greek ‘oligos’ meaning ‘few’ and ‘arche’ meaning ‘rule’), that is, government by a few, although in theory the representatives were democratically elected.

The wider body of Roman citizens, however, resented this system. They managed to ensure reforms through insurrections and strikes. Another set of executive officers called tribunes were also elected each year, with responsibility for particular areas which affected the public at large, such as food supply. These tribunes had to be chosen from among the plebeians or the non-patrician families. In time, plebeians were also elected as consuls. Indeed, one of the strengths of the Roman democracy was that, as society changed, it opened up executive office to more and more levels of society so that large groups of society were not alienated. Thus in time the plebian families that had established themselves were considered part of the Roman establishment, while others who had not had influential ancestors were known as ‘New Men’. The great orator Cicero for instance was always seen as a ‘Novus Homo’, unlike the Julius Caesar he opposed, and Marcus Brutus who was the best known conspirator against Caesar. Both of them were patricians.


The Romans also had a Senate, which began as a consultative body of former magistrates. Before the Senate became established, the entire citizenry would meet in Assembly when new laws needed to be passed. But as the body of citizens grew too large, a group of representatives rather than the whole citizenry took over the role of a Parliament.


Initially the Senate was meant to make use of the expertise of former consuls, and also of junior officials as more of these became necessary, who could not be re-elected immediately to an executive position. In the Senate opinions were given in order of seniority. Since the consuls after their year of executive office joined the Senate as junior members, they tended to respect the opinion of the Senate even while they held office. Thus, the Senate had tremendous authority, and turned in effect into a legislature, where all new laws had to be passed. Given its composition, the Senate was a relatively conservative body. But since as noted the consulate and other offices were opened up slowly but surely to new sections of society, it was seen as a sufficiently representative one.


However, towards the end of the second century BC, as Rome took possession of the entire Mediterranean, this system of government found itself unable to cope with the rapid social and political changes that were taking place. After a long-drawn-out series of civil wars, which lasted for about a hundred years, Rome returned to one-man rule under Augustus Caesar who established a system that proved widely acceptable. The Roman Empire lasted for nearly five hundred years in Western Europe and for a thousand years longer in Eastern Europe. This helped to re-establish monarchy as a widely practised system of government, and it was only very gradually that the ideals of democracy were resurrected.