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When kings go incognito

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One of my favorite story motifs is of the king who travels incognito to learn what is really happening in his land. This idea shows up not only in folktales and fictions, but also in reality: Caliph Harun al-Rashid did it in 8th-century Iraq, while Turkmenbashi, the deceased leader of Turkmenistan, did it in his days as Soviet boss of that desert land. King Abdullah of Jordan also disguised himself and walked among his people shortly after he came to the throne.

But it’s not only Eastern potentates who like to walk among mortals on occasion. This week we can add to the list of incognito leaders a man I had never heard of until two days ago: Jens Stoltenberg, the prime minister of Norway.

Of course it stands to reason that Norway has a prime minister, but Norway being Norway I don’t pay much attention to what goes on over there. Aside from the mass murderer Anders Breivik and the black metal killer Varg Vikernes, I probably couldn’t name a single living Norwegian. Now at least I can add Jens Stoltenberg to that list.

But I digress. The reason I heard about Stoltenberg was because he decided that it was time to move among his people, to listen to them directly, and to that end he spent part of one day driving a taxi equipped with a hidden camera. His reasoning, on the footage I saw, was clear:“As prime minister it’s important to listen to people’s opinions, and in taxis people really say what they mean.”
Given that it is probably many years since Stoltenberg has ridden in a taxi, I am not sure how he knows this; perhaps it is a vestigial memory from the days before his ascension to the dizzying heights of state power in Norway. (Do they have a king there? I think they do, although – being Scandinavian and no doubt very groovy – he almost certainly won’t wear a cool gold hat like the monarch of my homeland.)

But still, I like the idea of prime minister as taxi driver. It’s true: Sometimes people do say what they really think in cabs. Unfortunately, Stoltenberg went about it all wrong. He made no effort to disguise himself, and almost immediately every passenger he picked up recognized him, and then every conversation that followed was pretty banal – moaning about overpaid fat cat CEOs, platitudes about education… dreadful stuff, totally standard for European politics. Why, it’s almost as if it were all just a PR stunt undertaken because his party is tanking in the polls!

Well, if so, it worked, because not only do I now know who he is, I also know there’s an election coming up in Norway and his party is tanking in the polls!

If Stoltenberg had really wanted to know what “the people” think, then he would have…

To read the rest of this awesome article, click here

Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist originally from Scotland, who currently resides in Texas after a ten year stint in the former USSR. Visit him online at www.danielkalder.com
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