The Office of High King

I’ve been in New York for the last couple of months working on my next book, listening to public radio and reading the occasional edition of the New York Times.

America is an interesting place, and the commentary on things going on in the political sphere got me thinking about another time and place: Ireland, ‘the land of the kings’, in the times of Brian Boru, who is regarded as the last High King of Ireland.

When Brian became King of Munster, he was one of around 150 kings ruling greater or lesser domains. Basically, every tribal leader was a regarded as a king, but a group of more powerful kings had created the position of High King, to which all the others were more or less subservient. It was Celtic Ireland after all, and Celtic tribes liked to fight, mainly each other.

The seat of the High King was the Hill of Tara, located north of modern day Dublin, in County Meath, and Brian claimed it in 1002.

What made me think of this? Well, New York has a new mayor. He took up office in January, having been elected on a reformist platform. As I listened to how the new mayor went about establishing himself, hand picking his administration of unelected officials to run the city agencies, I realised he was like a prince taking over a kingdom – he was setting up his court of advisors, who would help him manage his relationship with the elected city council.

One morning, there was a story about an issue, that made it clear that the position of mayor of New York City, powerful as it is, answers to the Governor of New York State, who has his own court of unelected officials in Albany, to manage his relationship with the elected members of the State Legislature .

The State Governor is like a king with a number of lesser kings within his domain. As far as I can tell, New York State is not unique in this way. Every state appears to be a version of ‘the land of kings’.

And then, there is another level of government – the federal, with its own king, the High King, seated in Washington. Americans call this position the President, and it has its own court of unelected officials chosen by the President, like the Secretary of State, which is referred to as The White House Administration, and which runs the Public Service Agencies.

The President and his administration must work with the people’s elected representatives, who make up what is known as Congress, to govern.

By the way, these three levels of government: local – state – federal, are not unique to the United States. They just have different names in different places.

American citizens are invited to participate in regular rounds of democracy building elections at all three levels. They can vote for President, Governor and Mayor, and for members of Congress, State Legislatures and City Councils. In this way the people get to choose who occupies the positions of power, and with constitutions at all three levels of government limiting terms of office, it looks like the people have real power. But do they?

Listening to public radio, I get the impression that there is something else at play here.

Most of us are aware, from the blanket TV coverage given to presidential elections, that it takes a lot of money to mount such a campaign. This seems to be true for becoming the leader at the state and local level as well.

If you spend a fortune becoming President, how much real power do you actually have?

A lot us, no doubt, think the President of the United States of America is the most powerful man in the world. But is he? Who’s actually in charge?

The stories in the media suggest to me that the High King in Washington is currently being ‘checkmated’ by his opponents in Congress. So, I asked myself, if the President is elected by the people and the members of Congress are elected by the people, why is the outcome so confusing to an outside observer?

Then, from the stories I was hearing, I realised there was another group of players, the people of influence, the people who control the money flow. In medieval times, these were the landed gentry, the barons that controlled the economic, largely agricultural, outputs of the kingdom and the flow of cash into the king’s treasury.

Today, in America, they’re the barons of industry or Wall Street, the so-called 1%, and they appear to have a lot of influence on the available levers of power. If you think I’m dreaming, do some research on gun control, or regulation of the meat packing industry, or find out who got the money used to ‘fix’ the global financial crisis, or if that sounds too hard, tune into public radio and listen to the conversation.

I’ve been to the Hill of Tara, and stood on its desolate mounds, in a green field that’s a long way from any place of power. In the years following Brian Boru, the office of High King lost its unifying influence, and the Irish lost their independence for close to a thousand years – some of them still haven’t got it back.

Let’s hope, for the good of the 99%, that the office of High King in Washington does not lose its unifying influence, under the impact of the conflicting demands of today’s people of influence.

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