On holidays I sometimes go to car boot-sales – what in the U.S. they call rummage sales, where people carry their spare or unwanted belongings to a field, and unload them onto tarps or picnic tables. You get to see a sort of cross-section of people’s lives, in the form of bric-a-brac. Every now and then you find something remarkable.

At one of these sales I recently came across an issue of the Harmsworth History of the World, a history magazine published in the first years of the 20th century. The issue I picked up was about the British Empire. In rather breathless prose, the magazine described the various parts of the world that Britain claimed at the time, plus some that the authors expected would soon fall under her dominion.

Among the things that most struck me were the photographs of parliaments and executive councils in British-administered territories. These councils, in Asia, Africa, or Australia, consisted exclusively of white men – almost all of them with large moustaches – lounging on chairs in well-upholstered rooms.

Why did this surprise me? That was how the world worked a century ago, right?

On reflection, I think it was not so much the then-ness but the now-ness of the images that produced my emotional reaction – not their strangeness, but their familiarity.

I knew that was how things used to be; what startled me was how much the make-up of those council chambers resembled the parliaments I’m most familiar with today.

Maybe it’s partly because I live in a neighbourhood of London where there are as many Africans as Europeans, or because I have a mixed-race family. The disproportionate representation of wealthy white men seems like an anachronism. It reminded me of the inertia of our political systems.

Despite decolonization and the massive waves of migration that have broken over the U.K., Australia, and North America, the parliaments and houses of representatives of these cosmopolitan states are still predominantly white and male. And race and gender are only the most obvious forms of bias in our institutions. There’s also bias towards the educated, the urban, and the professional. British MPs, for example, are more than four times as likely to have attended a fee-paying school as are members of the general population.

As Simon Woolley puts it, “Our institutions don’t look like us, and don’t sound like us.” [1]

It doesn’t have to be this way.

If only we would look, we would find a rich array of democratic possibilities to draw on. The Athenian option, according to which representatives were chosen by lot from the entire citizen body, is just one among many models of democracy that we could take inspiration from.

democracy notes

Back to the drawing board

At a seminar I attended some years ago, a professor recalled that in the Soviet Union, many ancient texts were banned, because it was recognized that they were subversive. They pointed the way to a different world.

The ancients won’t necessarily help us in our decisions about this week’s General Election. But to find solutions to the problems we face in the longer term, we’d do well to consider the ways people in other times in places have made, and remade, society.

We’d do well, in other words, to have a rummage through history’s great car-boot sale.


[1] Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote, interviewed on Radio 4’s Today Programme, 22 May, 2017, 07:15

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