Rachel Hammersley
Professor of Intellectual History

Whatever its character, a society should benefit all of its members, not just a chosen few. This is equally true of a sports club, a voluntary association like the Women’s Institute, or an entire nation. In each case this means that those who govern – or wield power of any kind – must act for the good of the whole rather than simply advancing their own private interests.

There are links here to the history of republicanism. Today a republic is often understood simply as a government without a monarch. But the history of the concept is much richer and, consequently, has wider applicability. The Roman statesman Cicero was one of the first to offer a definition of a republic, describing it as ‘the concern of the people’ and arguing that it truly exists ‘when its affairs are conducted well and justly, whether by a single king, or by a few aristocrats, or by the people as a whole’. The eighteenth-century Geneva-born philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau built on this, arguing that a ‘Republic’ is a state ‘governed by laws, no matter what the form of administration may be: for only in such a case does the public interest govern, and the res publica rank as a reality’. One objection to republicanism has been the notion that it requires there to be a single ‘common good’ in which all members share, and that this is impossible to achieve and completely at odds with the liberal values of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But Rousseau’s definition suggests that there is another, more pressing, concern. The rule of law requires that the rules according to which individuals should behave are accessible – and applicable – to everyone.

Can we really say that this is the case in so-called ‘civilised’ societies today? So many recent political incidents in the UK, from expenses scandals to the furore over lockdown parties, and even (thinking on a global scale) debates over how to tackle climate change, seem to suggest that different rules apply according to one’s status and place in society. The issue here, then, is less coming to a set of agreed rules, than ensuring that all members of society adhere to those rules – including the wealthy and powerful. This, as past republicans recognised, requires vigilance on the part of ordinary people to identify and call out infringements, as well as mechanisms for reporting and addressing them. It is these mechanisms that are missing from ‘civilised’ societies today. Only by ensuring that the powerful are held to account for their actions, and are required to live under the same laws as everyone else, will we all be able to enjoy a flourishing civil society.

Rachel Hammersley – Professor of Intellectual History