The twenty-eighth in my ongoing series examining the poetry of Rudyard Kipling. The other posts in the series may be read here, here , here , here, here , here, here, here, here, here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here , here , here, here and here.
There is a curiously prophetic quality to some of Kipling’s poems. He saw the birth of the welfare states, just as we are witnessing the death throes of such states. He saw all too clearly where all this would lead. For the poem we are looking at in this post, he took as his inspiration the tale of The City of Brass from the Arabian Nights, and shaped it into a prediction of how increasing taxation to pay for welfare would end up in disaster. Kipling wrote the poem in 1909 in white heat in reaction to the so-called People’s Budget of Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George, the first British budget to explicitly call for raising taxes to redistribute wealth to establish what would become known as a welfare state:
This is a war Budget. It is for raising money to wage implacable warfare against poverty and squalidness. I cannot help hoping and believing that before this generation has passed away, we shall have advanced a great step towards that good time, when poverty, and the wretchedness and human degradation which always follows in its camp, will be as remote to the people of this country as the wolves which once infested its forests.
(How many empty promises like that have been made in the intervening one hundred and five years!) Lloyd George was ably assisted by Winston Churchill, then President of the Board of Trade, although Churchill would always reject socialism, and do so with more vigor as the years passed.
Passages in Kipling’s poem read as if they were current commentary on America in the Age of Obama:
“Who has hate in his soul? Who has envied his neighbour?
Let him arise and control both that man and his labour.”
They said: “Who is eaten by sloth? Whose unthrift has destroyed him?
He shall levy a tribute from all because none have employed him.”
They said: “Who hath toiled, who hath striven, and gathered possession?
Let him be spoiled. He hath given full proof of transgression.”
They said: “Who is irked by the Law? Though we may not remove it.
If he lend us his aid in this raid, we will set him above it!
Kipling always had a strong distrust of the power of the State and as for the politicians who wielded that power he accurately summed up most of them in the phrase: “little tin gods on wheels”. Here is Kipling’s poem: