Political Advice From Rudyard Kipling

I have always been a great fan of the poetry of Kipling.  It is fun to recite and often has a fair amount of wisdom.  Too often Kipling is simply written off as a pro-imperialist poet and relegated to the past along with the British Empire.  He was certainly a loyal Brit and an advocate of the Empire, but there was much more to him than that.  Refusing honor after honor, including being poet laureate of Great Britain, he always retained his independence to give loving criticism to his country.  For example, in 1897 at the time of the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria, he wrote the poem Recessional which envisioned a time when Great Britain would have lost its Empire and its power:

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet.
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Kipling realized that power was never an end itself and that Great Britain would be judged by God and History not by how much power it amassed, but by what the British did with their power.

This post is the beginning of a new series which will analyze some of Kipling’s poetry.  First up is a fairly obscure poem but one which I think has valuable lessons for politicians.  The poem was written in 1911 and is entitled Norman and Saxon:

“MY son,” said the Norman Baron, “I am dying, and you will be heir
To all the broad acres in England that William gave me for my share
When we conquered the Saxon at Hastings, and a nice little handful it is.
But before you go over to rule it I want you to understand this:–

“The Saxon is not like us Normans. His manners are not so polite.
But he never means anything serious till he talks about justice and right.
When he stands like an ox in the furrow with his sullen set eyes on your own,
And grumbles, ‘This isn’t fair dealing,’ my son, leave the Saxon alone.

“You can horsewhip your Gascony archers, or torture your Picardy spears;
But don’t try that game on the Saxon; you’ll have the whole brood round your ears.
From the richest old Thane in the country to the poorest chained serf in the field,
They’ll be at you and on you like hornets, and, if you are wise, you will yield.

“But first you must master their language, their dialect, proverbs and songs.
Don’t trust any clerk to interpret when they come with the tale of their wrongs.
Let them know that you know what they’re saying; let them feel that you know what to say.
Yes, even when you want to go hunting, hear ’em out if it takes you all day.

“They’ll drink every hour of the daylight and poach every hour of the dark.
It’s the sport not the rabbits they’re after (we’ve plenty of game in the park).
Don’t hang them or cut off their fingers. That’s wasteful as well as unkind,
For a hard-bitten, South-country poacher makes the best man-at-arms you can find.

“Appear with your wife and the children at their weddings and funerals and feasts.
Be polite but not friendly to Bishops; be good to all poor parish priests.
Say ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘ours’ when you’re talking, instead of ‘you fellows’ and ‘I.’
Dont’ ride over seeds; keep your temper; and never you tell ’em a lie!”

The political lessons in this poem are fairly obvious, but it is astounding how many politicians never learn them:

1.  You will only get support if you give support.  Listen to your constituents and do your best to help them with any problems they have.  Make certain that you gain a reputation for working hard for them, and the best way to do that is by actually working hard for them.  LBJ, in spite of my low view of his character overall, had a standing rule that every phone call from any constituent, no matter how humble, was returned within 24 hours.

2.  Understand whatever area you hold office for better than the back of your hand.  Too many politicians find such local matters boring.  It is never too boring for any politician who wishes to get re-elected.

3.  Be seen by your constituents at as many functions as possible.  If you like doing this, great!  If you don’t like doing this, tough!  Liking it or hating it, it is an essential part of the job.

4.  Make sure to convince as many of your constituents as possible that you have their well-being at heart.  Most of them will give you lee-way to fail, as long as they know that your heart is in the right place and you are trying as hard as you can.  If they ever become convinced that your loyalties are not with them, they will find, eventually, someone to replace you.

A great many Republicans will be elected in November.  In addition to becoming familiar with the great issues of the day, they could do worse with their time than reading this poem and taking to heart the simple but important lessons it contains for nuts and bolts politics.

5 Responses to Political Advice From Rudyard Kipling

  1. Awakaman says:

    My favorite Kipling is the poem that reads:

    When you’re lying on the Afghan plains
    And the women and children come to pick at your remains
    Roll to your gun and blow out your brains
    And go to your God like a soldier

    Clearly reflecting Britain’s futile efforts in Afghanistan – similar to our own, and the futility of war in general.

  2. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Actually Awakaman the Brits succeeded in turning Afghanistan into a client state after the Second Anglo-Afghanistan war in 1880, a relationship that endured, except for a brief period of fighting in the Third Anglo-Afghanistan War in 1919, until the Brits left India in 1947. The Afghanistan border with India, now Pakistan, has never been so peaceful before or since. As to the futility of war, that might make a nice bumper sticker, although I prefer “Arms Are For Hugging”!, but it is really historical nonsense. There have been futile wars, the Soccer War between El Salvador and Guatemala in 1969 is a prime example, wars that have brought about decisive victories for one side, our Civil War, wars that have laid the framework of a lengthy period of peace, the defeat of Napoleon I for example, wars that have ended in the annihilation of one side, the Third Punic War, and an endless additional variety of wars. Wars come in all shapes and sizes and to decry the futility of war is to simply ignore the data available to us from the historical record.

  3. […] second in my series examining the poetry of Kipling.  Kipling liked to keep his religious views obscure.  In 1908 he […]

  4. Mack says:

    One wishes more bishops, too, took this sense of responsibility to heart.

  5. Jon says:


    The poem is actually not quite as delicate as you remember it. It’s called “The Young British Soldier,”
    and the last stanza reads:

    When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
    And the women come out to cut up what remains,
    Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
    An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
    Go, go, go like a soldier,
    Go, go, go like a soldier,
    Go, go, go like a soldier,
    So-oldier ~of~ the Queen!

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