Brexit and the Mytilenean debate

Britain has been rocked by the  results of the referendum on the 23rd of June this year where the majority vote decided that the UK would leave the European Union. Since the decision to leave was announced there has been an uprising of regret in the UK, with hashtags such as #bregret and #brexshit trending, and an online petition that calls for another referendum that has (at the time of writing this) over three million signatures.

I have also seen people on social media stating that calling for another referendum on this decision is fundamentally undemocratic, that the majority has voted and Brexit was the definitive choice of the nation which cannot be changed.

This may well be so but the fundamentals of democracy have long being deliberated. As a student of Classics and Ancient  History for over four years I feel that a literally ancient debate could be considered again. I am referring to  The Mytilenian Debate.

Mytilene was a city on the island of Lesbos which had attempted unsuccessfully to shake off Athenian hegemony during the Peloponnesian War. Afterwards the Athenian Assembly had to vote on what they were going to do in reprise. Book Three of Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War describes how one side of the debate called for the total destruction of Mytilene and its people, while the other called for only the ring leaders to be killed. On one day the vote FOR decimating Mytilene won and a ship was immediately sent to destroy the city. The NEXT day they voted again, this time the majority voted AGAINST the destruction and a second ship was sent out post haste to stop the first!

This decision rocked the Athenian populace. What did it mean for their society that they could make such a brutal and rash decision because they had concerns for their borders and the effect it would have on their economy in difficult times? That question arose in much of their literature and shadows of it can be seen in Euripides’ Trojan Women, a play that is often re-preformed in modern times when things are politically unstable.

I realise that Western democracy is now unrecognisable from its origins in Ancient Athens and that for many people it means many different things, but we can all agree that the citizens of a nation have the right to vote on matters on the state. However, that also means that the people also have the right to vote AGAIN with a different perspective if they call for it. Last year Scotland voted to remain part of the UK and Nicola Sturgeon is considering calling a second referendum believing  that as a majority of Scotland voted to remain in the EU it is in their best interests to hold one. Is that fundamentally undemocratic? In 1975 there was a referendum to vote whether the UK should be ‘In’ or ‘Out’ of the EU. At that time the voters chose to vote ‘In’.  So does this mean this second  referendum is ‘fundamentally undemocratic’? Or if as many people who voted ‘Out’  seem to be expressing regret as the consequences of the Brexit becomes apparent and as some of the promises of the Leave campaigners are renounced, would it be undemocratic to have a second referendum? If the result is the same then it will truly be the choice of the people but if it changes then it would be fundamentally undemocratic for us to ignore that.

As a nation we have sent out the first ship. If we are lucky we might be able to send the second.


Written by Caitlin Harris, MA student in Ancient Narrative Literature