Wanting a king…

A recent podcast from “The Bible for Normal People” (ep. 215) led me to contemplate what I see as the overarching message of the early history of the Jewish people, namely that they clamoured for a king, were repeatedly told kings were a bad idea, they got kings and – well – it was on the whole a bad idea.

The alternative was a society led by prophets, of course, and I have the deepest misgivings about prophets as leaders as well. Iran gives us a present-day example of a prophet-led nation, and megachurches perhaps give us smaller-scale examples. Although the scriptures paint us a fairly rosy picture (from the Israelite point of view, at least) of the prophetic period, I do notice that scripture is full of prophets who proved not to have the direct line to God which this arrangement would require in order not to be a form of kingship, just one with the force of a deity behind the glorious leader (Ezekiel 13 springs to mind). That said, there has been a strong tendency for kings to have divine authority attributed to them – the pharaohs of Egypt were god-kings, Alexander was hailed as divine in the East, as were Augustus and many of his successors in the West, and the tendency carried on up to Louis XIV’s pronouncement of the “divine right of kings”.

1 Samuel 8 is probably the definitive statement:-

When Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons as Israel’s leaders. The name of his firstborn was Joel and the name of his second was Abijah, and they served at Beersheba. But his sons did not follow his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”

But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”

10 Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. 20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”

21 When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord. 22 The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”

Then Samuel said to the Israelites, “Everyone go back to your own town.”

Now, I think it worth pointing out that this post is not a criticism of the kind of monarchy we have in the UK at the moment. I suspended writing this post when Queen Elizabeth died, and turned my attention to something more in keeping with how I felt about her. It would have applied more to Charles I, or, indeed, to any of our monarchs before him. They were in practice absolute monarchs in the mould of what the prophet was criticising (though the fact that Charles I lost his crown and his head as a result of going too far down the absolutist route indicates that even before our Civil War monarchy was more limited in practice than in theory), but ever since the Restoration in 1660, our monarchs have been subject to parliament. The Earl of Rochester wrote of Charles II “Here lies our mutton-eating king, whose word no man relies on, who never said a foolish thing, nor ever did a wise one”, and Charles replied “My sayings are my own, my actions are my ministers”. That was fairly true of Charles II, and has been increasingly true of all monarchs since then. Granted, James II had a go at returning to something more traditional, but was forced to flee the country and replaced by his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange in 1688, having lasted just over three years.

The issue is, however, that we seem to like kings, just as the Israelites did. I’m not talking for everyone here, but for substantial numbers in many countries. This has been brought home forcibly to me by the strong desire of US Republicans to see Trump re-elected, and in the UK by the clamour of rank and file Conservatives to see Johnson given another term as Prime Minister, only 7 weeks after he was forced out of the position amidst a host of instances of corruption, lying to Parliament and flagrantly breaking rules he had set during the Covid lockdown.

It isn’t just Republicans in the USA, either. Obama made massively more use of executive orders than had been the norm for previous presidents, and Trump followed him in that. Democrats were not worried about Obama’s use of them, but railed against Trump’s use; the reverse was the case under Trump. These circumvented (to an extent) the elaborate system of checks and balances set up by the founders, with two legislative chambers (with real power – the UK has two as well, but the House of Lords is hugely weakened) and an independent judiciary. Of course, the judiciary now seems to be not just politically appointed but also politically motivated, so not really independent. In the UK, laws have been passed reducing the ability of Parliament to review some governmental actions and to limit the power of the courts to challenge these. In addition, there is a bill going through Parliament at the moment massively reducing people’s freedom to protest. The Labour party, which one would have expected to be screaming at these, has not seriously opposed them, and its current leader has indicated that he actually supports the reduction of freedom to protest.

I tend rather to prefer the idea of the US system, which has checks and balances on legislative and executive power built in to it. The use of executive orders is clearly contrary to that spirit – but it seems to me a necessary development unless the Senate can be persuaded to give up the filibuster idea, which I find frankly ridiculous. Requiring a supermajority for the everyday business of government is a recipe for deadlock, and the deadlock needed breaking.

In the UK, it seems to me that Brexit has massively skewed the way our system worked. There was, to my mind, far too little in the way of checks and balances: the power of the upper house to block legislation was massively reduced in the early 20th century (which one finds it hard to criticise too much. given that the upper house in the UK was then hereditary and is now largely appointed and still partly hereditary, so lacking in democratic legitimacy), and the party system, which favours two parties in a “first past the post” voting system, makes it too easy for the leaders in a party to compel obedience from the rank and file members of parliament, and for their leader, once in government, to operate far too much like an absolute monarch. Johnson expelled most of those who were sceptical about Brexit; Starmer has expelled many who favoured a more socialist set of policies, and the recent reductions in parliamentary sessions (to a mere 20 weeks a year) and shift away from parliament having actual power to challenge government decisions has gone further in that direction. It is, to me, ironic that Tory governments from 2016 onwards have talked about Brexit “giving back control” to the people of the UK, whereas the effect of their recent policies has largely been to take control away from people more generally and vest it in the political elite – and ultimately a prime minister who functions very much like a monarch.

It looks to me as if we actually like the idea of a single individual with effectively all the power, as long as it’s an individual we approve of. Thinking back to 2019, part of the complaint Johnson had was that Parliament was “not fit for purpose”, as they couldn’t agree the terms of leaving the EU (something which, at the time, around 65% of them hadn’t wanted to happen in the first place – but they more or less universally accepted the fact that we were leaving, just wanting a closer relationship with the EU than the die-hard Brexiteers favoured); the 2019 election was overwhelmingly fought on the basis of replacing existing MPs with people who would commit to following Johnson’s lead without demur, which was replacing MPs who actually represented their constituents (for a change), who did not want a severing of economic ties with our biggest and closest trading partners. So far as I can trace, a serious majority of those who voted “Leave” in 2016 did not want us to leave the Customs Union and Single Market as well as the European Union proper, so those MPs were probably far more representative than those who followed Johnson. However, the cult of Johnson’s personality won out – coupled, of course, with the suggestion that anyone who did not want the most extreme Bexit possible was actually trying to stop Brexit altogether. Somehow those MPs who best represented their constituents were being painted as disloyal to them.

In the USA, it appears that personal loyalty to Trump may now be a necessary qualification for standing as a Republican (although the recent mid-terms may have reduced that tendency). This is totally out of line with the representative character of Member of Congress and Senators, which historically has been far more prominent than in the UK once the party system became entrenched here in the first half of the 20th century. Much as I sympathise with my Democrat friends who burn with irritation over the positions of Manchin and Sinema, that is entirely in keeping with the way politics has actually played out in the USA, with party politics being far less vital than it is in the UK, and the individual character of representatives being more important. Unfortunately, perhaps, the parties in the USA seem to be exerting greater control over most of their representatives, while the brief period (2016-19) when UK parliamentarians didn’t toe the party line nearly so much seems to have been an aberration, with party control in both Conservative and Labour parties having been firmed up massively (in the case of Labour, to exclude supporters of the previous leader, Jeremy Corbyn, as well as anyone proposing truly socialist policies).

This voting for the person rather than the party (or the set of policies proposed by the party) has been given a recent boost in my estimation by this podcast, which (to me depressingly) indicates that, at least in the States, people do not really know what the policies of the party they vote for are – and I’ve little reason to suspect that things are radically different in the UK. Unfortunately, this may lead to people wanting a “strong man” leader, as this poll indicated a few years ago. Granted, that’s quoted by Breitbart, so I regard it with suspicion, and this more recent poll indicates that a similar demographic would overwhelmingly support a socialist economy. The two are not as inconsistent as might appear – it is perfectly possible to have a strong man running a socialist economy, as many 20th century fascists would have supported both.

While I complain on a theoretical basis about this tendency, I must admit to feeling it to some extent myself. I would very much like to be able to leave all this business of government to a representative who would do, more or less, the things which need doing, and let them take the decisions, trusting in their knowledge, wisdom and hard work to know about the topics they are voting on and do the wise thing in the circumstances. That, after all, is what the theoretical elected representative in a representative democracy will do. I don’t really want to have to get to grips with all the minutiae behind every decision. I well remember my time on the District Council here, when every few days I would get through the mail another inch or so of paperwork which needed to be read in order to make a sensible contribution at the next council meetings. I was pretty good at reading the lot, aided by a very fast reading speed. Some of my fellow councillors weren’t quite as good! I quail at the thought of the amounts of background information which ought to be learned and remembered by those in parliament, which is probably several times the amount I had to cope with. OK, I’ll admit, I really don’t think most MPs are nearly as well informed as they ought to be. Neither, judging by some performances at Prime Minister’s questions, are government ministers, despite having political advisers and civil servants to absorb the information and digest it for them (something which is at least a little problematic, as anyone who has watched some episodes of “Yes Minister” will know only too well – that purported to be comedy, but was extremely close to truth).

So, you might ask, why did I spend 20+ years as a councillor? Largely because it seemed to me that those putting themselves up for election were neither well informed nor making wise decisions, so I had a responsibility to try to do that myself.

The idea that there could be one person I could rely on to make the right decisions is horribly attractive, though, particularly coupled with a disinclination to continue to do the necessary work. But I have virtually zero belief that anyone could do that consistently well, and in particular want to be able to express my pleasure or displeasure at the performance of my representative on a reasonably frequent basis. In addition, I really don’t want one person to be in that position for too long. I felt it in myself after three terms on the council – “power corrupts”, they say, and I felt that “entitled” sensation growing in me. Add to that feeling I had no restraint on what I did in the form of elections – well, I’m not sure I could have resisted that. As it happens, I eventually resigned from my council seat as I felt I could no longer do a proper job…

There is within that a more comfortable motive than laziness – it’s humility.  Admitting that there are others who can do the job better than you can and encouraging them to do it is, I think, a good thing. Perhaps I lacked humility when I first stood for election – I don’t know. However, I certainly managed it when I resigned my seat. There’s a negative side to that as well, of course – the forelock-pulling subservience to the entitled rich, which is conned by the idea that intelligence and ability inevitably produce wealth as well as by generations of indoctrination in a still class-ridden society. (Those in the USA may think they aren’t class-ridden, but they’d be wrong. They feel the “wealth denotes ability” mechanic even more than we do, and they still have their non-WASP underclass despite all efforts to reduce its bite).

Another thing making kings (and other autocratic rulers) attractive is hinted at above. A single individual can make decisions much more easily than can a group – indeed, as the US and UK situations mentioned above indicate, a group may be wholly unable to make a decision. Granted, in the case of Brexit, that was probably a good thing, and would that it had lasted! Yes, they can make wrong decisions quicker and more easily just as they can make right ones, but then, so can groups, or even entire democracies (I cite Brexit as an example again). Democracy costs in speed and efficiency. It also costs in money terms – paying for 600 individuals in the commons and 800 in the Lords costs around half a billion pounds a year according to the link.

Finally, I suppose, is the myth of the “strong man”. This is, as far as I can see, stronger in the US than it is in the UK, and stronger in both than it is in the north-western part of Europe – there are “strong men” in place in Hungary and Poland at the moment, and a “strong woman” in Italy, which I’d until recently have included in the “western” area. That’s closely linked with the phenomenon of feeling that leaders express us. It links closely with the loyalty and authority heads of Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory. OK, those are traditionally conservative values, and I’m not a conservative, except with a very small “c” in that I tend to the “if it ain’t bust, don’t fix it” school of thought and a preference for small tweaks to the system rather than wholesale “burn to the ground and start again”. I thus have relatively little time for that concept, and a huge scepticism that anyone other than myself can really represent me well.

That said, I’m not able any more to face the election process, nor the volume of work which would be involved in a representative position. I’m too old and sick. If I don’t want to do it myself, I’m stuck with someone else doing it – and I want to have a say in choosing who that is. Not a king. Not a strong man. Not Johnson, and definitely not (if I had the misfortune to be able to vote for him) Trump.

There is, in passing, a discussion of some early French theorists on monarchy in a recent episode of “The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps”. I note that I’ve outlined several reasons for a monarch that those theorists didn’t address. Nor did Thomas Hobbes. Let me know if you are aware of a theorist who supports monarchy on the kind of grounds I put forward!

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