David Bouchier: The Man Who Would Be King

Jul 10, 2017

There are still forty-four monarchies in the world, including those in Britain and Saudi Arabia, and I would be willing to bet that none of those kings or queens have any great affection for the month of July. Historically, two of the most devastating attacks on the principle of monarchy happened in July. The British King George III was cruelly rejected by his American colonists on July the 4, 1776, and in France, July 14th, Bastille Day, commemorates the revolution that dethroned King Louis XVI.

But was this really a good idea? The debate about the best form of government has been going on for more than two thousand years, at least since the time of Plato. On one side are those who say that democracy is just about the best system of government that humanity has ever invented. On the other are those who passionately believe that our only security lies in giving absolute power to one individual – a king, an emperor or a dictator – who will protect us from external threats and, just as important, protect us from each other. Remove the absolute ruler and anarchy is the result. It’s like taking a teacher out the classroom for a moment, and watching the kids explode into a riot. In this conservative and even reactionary view, we are all unruly children who cannot be trusted for a moment without strict supervision. M. Roger de Prévoisin the leader of the Royalist Party of France, claims that a king – a real king, not a constitutional one – would bring the whole disorderly country together and make France great again.

The idea of kingship must be very attractive to politicians who are frustrated by the limitations of democracy. The fantasy of being an absolute monarch is that you are absolutely at the top of the totem pole. Nobody can push you around. But of course, it never works like that, any more than it worked for George the III or Louis the XVI, or any king back to the beginning of time.

In 1888 Rudyard Kipling wrote a cautionary tale about the desire for absolute power, called The Man Who Would be King. It was made into a movie in 1975, starring two Hollywood princes, Michael Caine and Sean Connery. The two British adventurers decide to establish themselves as kings in a remote corner of Afghanistan. They succeed, but not for long. The local people soon recognize their so-called “kings” as the imposters they are, and get rid of them. Simply calling yourself a king, as Kipling knew and as every king discovers, is not enough. You have to act like one.

And here’s the really tricky question: who gets to be the king, and how? We couldn’t let him choose himself. Guess which of our great leaders might crown himself king in 2020, if he had the chance. We might choose the wrong sort of monarch, say Richard III rather than Frederick the Great, and then we would be stuck with him. Then there’s the problem of succession and the hereditary principle, which would lead to a plague of wealthy princelings on the Saudi Arabian model, all fighting for the top position. Royal soap operas are all very well on television, but we wouldn’t want to live with one. Kings should stay in the history books, where they belong.

Copyright: David Bouchier