Kipling Perfectly Describes Brexiteers

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson


Nick Cohen of The Guardian has made effective use of a Rudyard Kipling poem in castigating two rightwing journalists-turned-politician—Boris Johnson and Michael Grove—for their roles in Brexit. This is what you get, Cohen says, when you propose entertainment solutions for real world problems.

Given that America is currently watching a reality television star take over the Republican party, we can apply the poem equally to our own situation.

Cohen lays out what entertainment solutions look like:

Johnson and Gove are the worst journalist politicians you can imagine: pundits who have prospered by treating public life as a game. Here is how they play it. They grab media attention by blaring out a big, dramatic thought. An institution is failing? Close it. A public figure blunders? Sack him. They move from journalism to politics, but carry on as before. When presented with a bureaucratic EU that sends us too many immigrants, they say the answer is simple, as media answers must be. Leave. Now. Then all will be well.

Johnson and Gove carried with them a second feature of unscrupulous journalism: the contempt for practical questions. Never has a revolution in Britain’s position in the world been advocated with such carelessness. The Leave campaign has no plan…Vote Leave did not know how to resolve difficulties with Scotland, Ireland, the refugee camp at Calais, and a thousand other problems, and did not want to know either.

Cohen says that, as a result, Johnson and Grove will have to answer to their followers:

The real division in Britain is not between London and the north, Scotland and Wales or the old and young, but between Johnson, Gove and [Nigel] Farage and the voters they defrauded. What tale will serve them now? On Thursday, they won by promising cuts in immigration. On Friday, Johnson and the Eurosceptic ideologue Dan Hannan said that in all probability the number of foreigners coming here won’t fall. On Thursday, they promised the economy would boom. By Friday, the pound was at a 30-year low and Daily Mail readers holidaying abroad were learning not to believe what they read in the papers. On Thursday, they promised £350m extra a week for the NHS. On Friday, it turns out there are “no guarantees”.

Kipling’s poem “The Dead Statesman” gets at this issue of accountability. The poem appears in “Epitaphs of the War,” a series of imagined epitaphs by people who died in World War I. Unlike most of the poems, however, “Dead Statesman” is about someone who sent others to their deaths. In other words, like the Brexit politicians, he’s playing fast and loose with other people’s lives:

I could not dig: I dared not rob: 
Therefore I lied to please the mob. 
Now all my lies are proved untrue 
And I must face the men I slew. 
What tale shall serve me here among 
Mine angry and defrauded young?

Notice how the Statesman’s major skill is making money by pleasing the mob. I told you that Kipling applies as much to Trump as to the Brexit politicians.

Cohen has another good literary allusion. Johnson and Gove are amongst the far right who pressured Prime Minister David Cameron to hold the Brexit referendum in the first place. When they won, thereby forcing Cameron’s resignation, they delivered glowing encomiums:

[T]hey gazed at the press with coffin-lid faces and wept over the prime minister they had destroyed. David Cameron was “brave and principled,” intoned Johnson. “A great prime minister,” muttered Gove. Like Goneril and Regan competing to offer false compliments to Lear, they covered the leader they had doomed with hypocritical praise.

Now that their lies are proving untrue, what tale will serve them as they face their “angry and defrauded” constituents?

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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