Little more than a hundred years ago the modern British welfare state was born in David Lloyd George’s 1909 finance bill, the “people’s budget.” Hearing of the bill’s provisions”old-age pensions! unemployment benefits! land taxes! (in those innocent times it was thought prudent to pay for social programs with taxation)”Rudyard Kipling was furious. He vented his fury in a poem, “The City of Brass,” 32 couplets of anapestic pentameter thundering with internal rhymes.
The gist of the thing was that Kipling’s countrymen, “smitten with madness” by their commercial and imperial success, had given themselves over to fantasies of social perfection, egged on by demagogues”“prophets and priests of minute understanding”:
They rose to suppose themselves kings over all things created”To decree a new earth at a birth without labour or sorrow
To declare: “We prepare it today and inherit tomorrow.”
Ants were to be punished, grasshoppers rewarded:
They said: “Who is eaten by sloth? Whose unthrift has destroyed him?
He shall levy a tribute from all because none have employed him.”
Criminals were to be set above the law:
So the robber did judgment again upon such as displeased him,
The slayer, too, boasted his slain, and the judges released him.
The people, led by demagogues, “awakened unrest for a jest” among the subject peoples of the Empire and “jeered at the blood of their brethren betrayed by their orders.”
Worse yet, they mocked the bourgeois virtues:
They nosed out and digged up and dragged forth and exposed to derision
All doctrine of purpose and worth and restraint and prevision.
It was all a bit splenetic. Kipling worked the general theme much better”more soberly, more reflectively”ten years later in “The Gods of the Copybook Headings.” If you are feeling splenetic rather than reflective, though, the earlier poem suits your mood better. And yes, that’s how I”m feeling, looking across the Atlantic to the land Kipling loved and to which I still have, I confess, some emotional connection.
Here, for example, is a story that got my spleen overheating. Sergeant Alexander Blackman of the Royal Marines has been given a life sentence at court-martial for shooting dead a wounded Taliban captive in Afghanistan. He was told he would serve at least ten years, which is around normal for the number of years that civilian murderers serve in Britain. (The average is 14 years, but this average is pushed up by very long terms for the worst kinds of murders”of children, police, etc.)
The shooting occurred in Helmland Province, in a zone of intense combat””the most dangerous square mile in Afghanistan,” in which captured British soldiers have been skinned alive. During Sgt. Blackman’s tour, 23 men from his brigade were killed. That’s around one in 200. I can”t find a number for the maimed, blinded, crippled, and emasculated, but I”m told that under modern medical conditions in the field, the ratio of wounded to killed is about six to one.
The incident was filmed by a camera mounted on the helmet of one of Sgt. Blackman’s colleagues. The purpose of such cameras escapes me. It has been famously said that we lose respect for laws and sausages when we have seen them being made. War can fairly be added to the list, I think. Probably the intention here is to ensure that British infantrymen carry out their traditional tasks”defined by Bernard Montgomery as “to find the enemy and kill him””without violating anyone’s human rights.
Sgt. Blackman, who has a spotless 15 years with the Marines through several combat assignments, will serve his sentence in a civilian prison. This is significant, as Britain’s prisons are hotbeds of Muslim extremism. Sgt. Blackman will be a prize target for glory-seeking jihadists, as will his family following the fool judge’s decision to release their names.