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The problem of power


My mother seemed to have a song for every occasion, and it is quite possible that my children think I have most scenarios covered by a quotation, for at this stage my mind resembles nothing so much as a layer-cake of texts. At present the top layer concerns the weighty matters of power and liberty, for it is only a week since dramatic and scarcely credible events were unfolding in Russia, with Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner group of mercenaries, advancing up the road to Moscow with his troops.

As he was doing so, my family and I were at the local polling station, casting our votes in the second round of the Greek parliamentary election, with my eldest grandson voting for the first time. The week also happened to be the 197th anniversary of the days-long Battle of Verga: in 1826 two thousand fighters from the Mani area in the south of the Peloponnese defeated the seven thousand Ottoman troops led by the Egyptian Ibrahim Pasha. Every year the citizens of Kalamata remember this decisive battle, and lay wreaths at a local memorial. They are right to be proud, for the Maniotes drove the would-be invaders back from the protective walls (which are still there) eight times.

I have long been interested in the versatile person who was John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton, a product of the nineteenth century, an English Catholic historian, politician and writer, and a very quotable one. He also had Continental connections and married a German countess, so had an outlook that was far from narrow, although he could never have been described as a radical. He sagely commented that ‘great men are nearly always bad men,’ but is best known for his idea that ‘power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ Surely both these ideas are applicable to both Prigozhin and Putin?

In the meantime, the persecuted and quite heroic Alexei Navalny is an exemplar of another of Acton’s ideas, namely that ‘liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.’ (I have felt for some time that anti-vaxxers should give this idea some consideration.) In opposing Putin and in being severely punished for this opposition, Navalny cannot be doing what he likes, but is rather doing what he feels to be his duty.

The other person whose ideas have been taking up space in my head this week is Irish lawyer John Philpot Curran, who lived from 1750 until 1817. There was a believer in human rights and liberty if ever there was one. He was an Irish-speaking Protestant, but famously defended an elderly Catholic priest who had been horse-whipped by an Anglo-Irish aristocrat because the former, while in the pulpit, had named certain adulterous individuals. Curran compelled the lord to pay the priest thirty guineas in compensation. On another occasion he defended a Jamaican slave. He also supported the cause of Catholic emancipation and defended United Irishmen members who were facing charges of sedition and treason; he failed to secure acquittals, however, and though he had to endure threats to his own life and safety he seemed never afraid to challenge the ruling power.


'The late Simon Crean could see that Australia’s decision to join the UK and the USA in the invasion of Iraq was illegal and would have dire consequences. In the wake of his recent death Crean’s criticisms of then Prime Minister John Howard’s actions have been widely quoted.'


One of Curran’s ideas can be used as an argument in favour of compulsory voting, and teaches a lesson, for example, to those of the British who did not bother to vote in the Brexit referendum. ‘It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active.’ Boris Johnson and his supporters were very active, and now look! But the most salutary quotation from Curran should make everybody ponder the matter of liberty and how it should be guarded at all costs. ‘The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.’ Some 200 years later, Albert Camus wrote that ‘the good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention.’

The Greek War of Independence started in 1821 and did not end officially until 1832. The leaders seem to have been as vigilant as they could be given the limitations of communication at that time, and the warrior Maniotes were both vigilant and determined. So has Navalny been, and there seems no sign of his efforts declining, despite his undoubted suffering. Closer to home, the late Simon Crean could see that Australia’s decision to join the UK and the USA in the invasion of Iraq was illegal and would have dire consequences. In the wake of his recent death Crean’s criticisms of then Prime Minister John Howard’s actions have been widely quoted.

Now to my grandson. He is only 17, the voting age having been recently lowered. I don’t know how he voted and cannot foretell his future political persuasion, so I just have to hope that he will not be indolent. And that when it comes to safeguarding democracy, he will always be vigilant.




Gillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: Protest. (Depositphotos). 

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, History, Power, Democracy



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Existing comments

Back in the day one had to be 21 in order to vote - my first was a NSW state election. My mother - a religious conservative always voted for Mr Menzies - my abusive step-father - a Labor voter. For my first election already having been turned off by a bellicose Liberal politician giving the address at my Sydney U BA graduation on May 30, 1970 (my 21st was the day before - that's how I recall that so precisely) was for the ALP which - so it seemed to me out of my relatively naïve political sensibility - had a rhetoric of decency and respect for the future of public education - the field which I was on the point of entering. As Gillian points out re her grand-son and his first election it is not possible to determine his future position beyond hoping that he will not be indolent but certainly be vigilant. It is this vigilance which has seen my own early position move/swing - but certainly not to the right - which nowadays seems to have become a kind of nightmarish caricature from where it was in the days of Menzies - adopting every chance to act for privilege and to take every chance to scatter fear mongering and divisiveness. My sense for social justice would never countenance that. What a fascinating cavalcade of exemplars Gillian has provided - my favourite would have to be John Philpot CURRAN.

Jim KABLE | 04 July 2023  

Thank you for another thought provoking article. I am reminded of my late Uncle, a Victorian Western District dairy farmer. I loved talking my Uncle about all sorts of things, including politics. On one occasion during one conversation, I was moaning about the poor state of the nation and what a mess things were. He didn't disagree but asked me whether I was a member of a political party. I had to confess that I wasn't. His point being that if I was that worried I should get involved and take some do something about it. We all do need to pay attention, but we also should get involved, if only in some small way.

Stephen | 05 July 2023  

Again thank you Gillian for so many words of wisdom and lessons from history that we do well to remember. Yes, it is very important to stay vigilant and hang on to common sense.

Maggie | 06 July 2023  

The world certainly needs myriads of John Philpot Currans. Thank you for the article and I shall delve into researching Mr Curran's life & works

Stathis T | 07 July 2023  

I had known of the Acton quote, but, until I read your excellent article Gillian, I had not traced it through to its source, a letter Acton wrote to Mandell Creighton, an Anglican bishop, objecting to the latter's advocacy of absolutism in both Church and State. It was a seminal statement for the West. Sadly, with the way both Church and State are going, we seem to have the absolutism of the befuddled. Simon Crean was quite correct in objecting to the Iraq War, which wreaked devastation on that country and led to the rise of ISIS: a bit like Sowing the Dragon's Teeth. Politically, we seem extremely confused in the West, and, in some countries, like the USA and France, commit self-harm on a massive scale. Things are not as bad in Australia, but I think we are faced with massive obfuscation on certain issues. We need some clarity here and politicians of integrity with some vision, who can communicate in Plain English.

Edward Fido | 07 July 2023  

As always, I’m impressed and enlightened by your historical knowledge and found this essay extremely interesting. Navalny is indeed an inspirational man, much more so than Prigozhin, although I have no doubt that the latter will live in fear for his life. I’m glad your grandson voted. I get tired of people complaining about having to do so. It’s such a privilege and we can only imagine what life might be like in Afghanistan today if casting a ballot were compulsory and preventing someone (notably women) were illegal!

Juliet | 07 July 2023  

Thank you, Gillian, for your usual incisive helicopter view of global affairs, past , present and future. Acton's comment remains all too true today but what remains amazing -- and comforting -- is that there always seem to be brave men like Navalny ready to take the risks of doing what they see as i their duty. Curran was another courageous man who was willing to take the risk of defending unpopular men.
I do not wish to sound like a rabid feminist, but what about the women who over the ages have stood up to be counted ? They don't have to be as violent as Charlotte Corday but they selflessly defend hundreds of small unseen liberties in "the long level hours of every day".

Meriel Wilmot-Wright | 10 July 2023  

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