Boris Johnson has often boasted of his prodigious memory for poetry. In 2009, he informed readers of the Daily Telegraph: “I could do you a dozen Shakespeare sonnets, the whole of Lycidas (186 lines of the thing) and the first 100 lines of the Iliad in Greek… What is the point of education, what is the point of civilisation, what is the point of our benighted money-grubbing species and what is the point of Conservatism if we don’t instruct our children in the chief glories of their inheritance?”
In 2017, on a visit to Myanmar as foreign secretary, Johnson managed to cause widespread offence by launching into a recitation of one of Rudyard Kipling’s poems, ‘The Road to Mandalay’, in the presence of various local dignitaries. A notable piece of imperialist nostalgia, it includes the lines: “The temple bells they say/ Come you back you English soldier.”
Johnson had to be hastily stopped by the UK ambassador to Myanmar, horrified that the foreign secretary had chosen to remind his hosts of their country’s former status as a subject nation of the British Empire.
‘The Road to Mandalay’ was clearly not one of the “chief glories of our inheritance” to which the people of Myanmar might like to be treated. But Kipling, for all his faults, was a superb poet. His poem ‘If’ has often topped polls of the nation’s favourite poems and is a memorable exposition of the qualities required of leadership.
Re-reading the poem recently, it struck me that the qualities it lists are, almost without exception, the very opposite of those that Boris Johnson has exhibited since entering Number 10 last year. With this in mind, I rewrote Kipling’s poem to make it better fit our current Prime Minister.
Perhaps he could learn it by heart.
If (or How to Be Prime Minister)
If you can tell a lie when all about you
Demand the truth and nothing less from you;
If you can break the trust that was placed in you,
And do this with no shred of conscience too;
If you can make the desperate who are waiting
For vital kit that might just save their lives,
Wait long weeks more through your prevaricating,
And shift the fault away from your own lies;
If you can make your dream of power your master
And serve it with no other earthly aim;
If you can mete out chaos and disaster
And always make a scapegoat take the blame;
If you can bear to hear the lies you’ve spoken
Puffed by the press to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the hopes and dreams of others broken,
And use all men and women as mere tools;
If you can simulate concern for others
When all the while you could not give a toss;
And gamble with the lives of fathers, mothers
And never turn a hair about their loss;
If you can kill the heart and soul within you
And carry on long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to you: ‘Hold on!’
If you can get the gutter press to love you,
So that its hacks lend you the common touch,
Then neither foes nor two-faced friends can hurt you,
And you’ll be free to get away with much;
If you can fill each TV airtime minute
With bullshit and not care it’s overdone,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be PM, my son!