A healthy, open democracy

A contested space

The freedom to contest, to challenge, to critique, is a crucial hallmark of a healthy society. The right to dissent, to argue, to hear differing points of view, to reject received wisdom has long distinguished the free from the less free state.

This is especially true, according to Conor Gearty, in moments of crisis, when ‘what the community, what the public want is some guide to understanding. That is where a person who has specialised in understanding behaviour, or in understanding culture, can become relevant; or it might be a lawyer, who can actually understand the relationship between the law and an event. There is this way in which an academic, independent, informed, committed to reason, with no axe to grind, can communicate effectively at moments of the highest importance.’

Research and scholarship can therefore help people make informed choices and express themselves as citizens. This of course presupposes they live in a society that confers such essential human rights as freedom of expression and provides the space for contestation and challenge. These rights also assume that citizens have proper access to justice in order to make their formal rights effective – a longstanding theme for Hazel Genn. ‘The courts are operating at their best when they allow people who are not powerful to become powerful by bringing a more powerful person, or the state, to account’, she says. But civic involvement also turns on what we understand by being subjects, citizens and political participants – a road that leads us back to antiquity.

The Cyrus Cylinder is widely regarded as history’s first declaration of human rights. Created by King Cyrus in Persia some 2,500 years ago, it encouraged freedom of worship throughout the Persian Empire and allowed deported people to return to their homelands. Much admired by Thomas Jefferson, it stimulated great interest when British Museum Director Neil MacGregor FBA recently organised its loan to Iran and the USA. Five centuries later, an example dear to Mary Beard is how Cicero set down general principles of good government which were at issue in Republican Rome, in some of his best-known surviving speeches. In his denunciation of the Roman rebel Catiline, and subsequent execution of Catiline’s associates without trial, Cicero raised political questions we still face.

‘What we are seeing in 63 BC’, says Beard, ‘are the roots of our issues about homeland security, how far the state should be able to suspend its normal rules of operation and citizens’ rights, in order to protect itself against terrorist threat. It has been discussed in those terms from Ben Jonson to Ibsen, precisely saying “how should the state respond to threats from the inside”?’ That’s not a plea, she adds, for every ten-year-old to learn Latin, but for there to be some classical scholars whose expertise can provide our culture with the knowledge and understanding of where it has come from.