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British Greece: The Political Culture of a Protectorate

How British and American influence shaped the downsides of modern Greek politics.

July 14, 2019

Winston Churchill

Editor’s Note: Kyriakos Mitsotakis has been given a mandate by Greek voters to move their country forward.
Just how large the challenge for the new prime minister and the country really is becomes apparent when one delves into the incisive, three-part series by Heinz Richter.

Moving through the centuries, he outlines the challenges, especially concerning corruption as well as deeply ingrained cultural factors standing in the way of good governance.

At the same time, Mr. Mitsotakis by background is quite ideally prepared to take on these challenges. One can only hope that the new government will succeed with its ambitious agenda.

Heinz Richter’s series of articles on Greece was originally published on June 18, 19 and 20, 2015. The author, from the University of Mannheim, is an expert of modern Greek history and politics.

Key findings:

1. There is a difference between the political cultures of Greece and those of Western Europe.

2. The European principle of separation of Church and State has never been fully realized in Greece.

3. Greek voters do not vote for a party, but against that party which did not do them the expected favor during the previous term.

When Britain became Greece’s sole protector in 1862, the old Greek “parties” – previously each aligned with a competing Great Power – changed their character.

They actually began to resemble political parties, in the sense that there existed now a conservative and a more liberal clientelistic network in the shape of pyramids.

However, even though they were labeled liberal and conservative, the two parties did not differ much. Both ruled on the basis of a highly refined system of favoritism, nepotism and rousfetia (patronage and perquisites).

The state in Greece became the object of exploitation by the chiefs of the respective clientelistic pyramid.

Trading of posts and patronage, a spoils system and a total corruption of the state administration, the judicial system and the military became the rule. The buying of votes and the falsifying of election results were a normal feature of political life. Towards the end of the 19th century, a Greek deputy called this system “political procuration.”

Meanwhile, if a king tried to get rid of this clientelistic relationship, as King Constantine I did during WWI, Britain intervened and undermined his power.

During the difficult years right after WWII, Britain still considered Greece a “protectorate” and the British ambassador acted as a “High Commissioner.” Britain was the protector state of Greece until 1946.

In 1947, Great Britain in effect transferred the “title” to rule Greece to the United States. This handover occurred within the framework of the Truman doctrine.

Greece then remained an American client state until 1974, when Turkey invaded Cyprus after a putsch there by Greece’s military junta. The junta, which had ruled since 1967, collapsed in the face of this failed venture in Cyprus.

When the junta fell, for the first time in modern times, Greece became a truly independent state. But the Cypriots paid the price: Their island was divided (and remains so).

Clientelistic parties

With all that as background, it comes as no surprise that the political parties that emerged under the British and American era from 1862 to 1974 had nothing in common with their European counterparts except that they also called themselves “parties.”

Party programs, party organization or party congresses were unknown in this period — let alone the forming of a political will by discussion inside a party. The party was, quite literally, the clientele of the party leader and he alone decided about the party’s course.

This also explains why major political parties were often run as fiefdoms of families, where fathers would hand over the reins of power in their party to their sons.

No wonder, then, that conflicts within a party led to the breaking off of sub-networks. Party loyalty became a function of the success of the party leader, i.e., loyalty depended on the rousfetia (benefits), which the party leader was able to convey to his clients.

In such a nepotistic system, a change of power comes about when sub-networks shift their loyalty to another party leader.

In parliamentary elections, even today, this pattern typically manifests itself in Greek voters actually not casting their vote for a specific party, but rather against the party that had not lived up to giving them the expected favor during the previous legislative period.

Missed opportunities

In the 20th century, Greece had altogether three opportunities to overcome its clientelistic system.

The first one came in 1923, when the influx of 1.5 million Greek refugees from the former Ottoman Empire rocked the system to its foundations.

But the traditional clientelistic network of Eleftherios Venizelos was strong enough to absorb the shock and make the newcomers his clientele.

The second opportunity came at the end of the occupation in WWII. The resistance movement — created by the Communist Party (KKE), several socialist parties (SKE/ELD) and independent leftists and liberals — aimed to rebuild the Greek state from the grassroots.

Over time, the prospect of a democratic postwar republic with Europeanized political structures may have been in the offing.

But Churchill denounced the resistance movement as a communist struggle for the imposition of a dictatorship of the proletariat. The armed British intervention in December 1944 ruined this possible opportunity of a renaissance of the Greek state.

Churchill had reason to worry. This new state would have terminated the clientelistic relationship with Britain. The King would not have been allowed to return and Greece would have become an equal partner of Britain. For Churchill, who wanted to restore the monarchy at all costs, this was inconceivable and unacceptable.

And so, the Greek state that emerged after the 1946-49 civil war had the old clientelistic structures. There was a ruling network called ERE, under Konstantinos Karamanlis, and an opposition network based on George Papandreou’s Centre Union.

A short period of rule by Papandreou did not change anything, and the military dictatorship from 1967 to 1974 was a repetition of clientelistic fascism.

The third opportunity for transformative change would arrive with the fall of the junta in 1974 and the increasing integration of Europe around the same time.


The Greek state under British influence was exploited by chiefs of competing clientelistic pyramids.

A power change in a nepotistic system comes when sub-networks shift their loyalty to another party.

In the 20th century, Greece missed three opportunities to overcome its clientelistic system.

Churchill denounced the Greek resistance movement as a communist struggle, crushing reform hopes.