Exceedingly good advice from Mr Kipling

Some of his supposedly most preposterous poems have never sounded more to the point than now
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The Independent Online

When David Gilmour's excellent book about Kipling's imperial politics, The Long Recessional, came out a few months ago, I expressed mild astonishment that a sympathetic book on so previously taboo a subject could now be written. Admiration for Kipling, for a very long time, could only be based on an appreciation of his virtuosity in verse and the grandeur of his rhetoric; from TS Eliot to Craig Raine, admirers made the case without extensive reference to his political beliefs.

When David Gilmour's excellent book about Kipling's imperial politics, The Long Recessional, came out a few months ago, I expressed mild astonishment that a sympathetic book on so previously taboo a subject could now be written. Admiration for Kipling, for a very long time, could only be based on an appreciation of his virtuosity in verse and the grandeur of his rhetoric; from TS Eliot to Craig Raine, admirers made the case without extensive reference to his political beliefs.

Gilmour's book, which has deservedly won the Elizabeth Longford prize for historical biography, tries to return to an aspect of Kipling that was extremely important to his first readers, and indeed the aspect that turned him into the unofficial laureate of the Empire. Although Gilmour shows him to be far more detached from martial imperialism than is often thought, Kipling's writings do contain an extensive manifesto for the imperial project. A lot of Kipling is designed to throw cold water over national fervour, as in the sober caution of the diamond jubilee ode "Recessional", the slow disillusionment growing through his Great War writings, or the impertinence of much of his early work about British India. A more biddable writer would have drawn back from the savagery of much of Kim and Stalky & Co, which made mildly uncomfortable reading.

Gilmour's book sticks in the mind, not altogether accurately, as a meditation on Kipling's dozen or so most unacceptable political proverbs. Everyone knows them; most admirers of Kipling now would prefer to ignore them. "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet"; "Killing Krueger with your mouth"; "Take up the White Man's Burden"; "Lesser breeds without the law"; "A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke"; and many others.

As it happens, hardly any mean what they are supposed to when read in context; the crack about the cigar is from a monologue by a fictional misogynist, the "lesser breeds" are the Germans, the one about East and West is followed by an affirmation of the equality of men, and so on.

All the same, Kipling sometimes does mean what you think he means, and there is something suggestive about the timing of this book, and this award. Some of Kipling's supposedly most preposterous poems have never sounded more to the point than they do now. One in particular now makes a good deal of sense.

When Kipling wrote "Take up the White Man's Burden", he was trying to express, in terms now outworn to the point of grotesquery, the idea of the duties of imperialism. The occasion was the United States' taking control of the Philippines in 1899. Kipling saw what the US, apparently, did not – that with imperial enrichment and power come imperial duties and obligations.

That argument has never looked more urgent than it does now. It must be clear to everybody that the United States has behaved in Afghanistan and Iraq exactly like an imperial power. In my view, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Imperialism now has a very bad name, but it is possible to make a distinction between responsible and irresponsible imperialism; between investment and asset-stripping.

The problem with US imperialism is that it has sought to exert power, to create client states, without any significant commitment to reconstruct and run the countries subsequently. After the display of imperial power in Afghanistan, we waited to see the imperial plans for reorganising and investing in the country. We are still waiting.

In Iraq, even more strikingly, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that US thinking did not even stretch that far. At least, a good deal of thought had been given in Afghanistan to the sort of government that would be established after the Taliban's defeat. It looks as if no one really considered this question in relation to Iraq, and I doubt that the US-led temporary administration is anything but an urgently patched-up solution, and certainly not any indication of a determination to take up those imperial burdens in any serious way.

The problem is that, unlike Kipling, we do not have a clear idea of imperialism. Unlike him, we are incapable of recognising an imperialist policy for what it is, and nervous of assuming the full duties of a responsible imperialism. Questions of investment are unhelpfully mixed up with charitable projects such as food aid; interference is violent but half-hearted, and we run away without finishing what we started. The result is the worst of all worlds; unwilling to put up with noisily hostile regimes, we seem too self-conscious to go in and just run the damned place. The revival of the imperialist project has been unforeseen and undesirable; but now we are stuck with it, there seems no plausible alternative to Kipling's advice. Afghanistan and Iraq have become American burdens, and there is no laying them down now.

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