The last week or two have seen more than the usual chorus of voices demanding ministerial statements on everything from soup to nuts. There have been the usual gamut of talking heads, most appearing to be unknowns too young for that job, bur all briefed to the hilt how to answer any question but the one asked.
Many people regard mealy-mouthed evasion as being the product of 21st century spin doctors. But this is untrue. 77 years ago in Britain’s darkest hour of May 1941 when the British Army was being hustled out of Greece and Libya, when the Bismarck was creating nightmares at the Admiralty, when every ally was prostrate—against all of which today’s travails would seem like midge bites, that quintessential Englishman Noel Coward demonstrated the quintessential sang-froid for which the English are famous by taking time out from the end of the world to lampoon the government in verse that still seems compellingly relevant today.
“We must have a speech from a Minister.
It’s what we’ve been trained to expect.
We’re faced with defeat and despair and disaster;
We couldn’t be losing our colonies faster.
We know that we haven’t the guns to defend
The ‘Mermaid’ at Rye or the pier at Southend.
You have no idea how we grown to depend
In hours of crisis
On whacking great slices
Of verbal evasion and dissimulation.
A nice governmental appeal to the nation
We’d listen to gladly, with awe and respect.
We know that the moment is sinister
And what we’ve been earnestly trained to expect.
When such moments we reach,
It’s a lovely long speech
(never comment or chat
About this; about that)
But a really ling speech
An extremely long speech
An ambiguous speech from a minister.
We must have a speech from a Minister.
We don’t mind a bit who it is,
As long as we get that drab lack of conviction
That dismal, self-conscious, inadequate diction
We find Mr Churchill a trifle uncouth.
His ill-represented passion for telling the truth
Who ‘Eye for an Eye’ and his ‘Tooth for a Tooth’
Is violent, too snappy.
We’d be far more happy
With some old Appeaser’s inert peroration.
We’d give ourselves up to complete resignation,
Refusing to worry or get in a fuzz;
We know that the moment is sinister.
We already said we don’t mind who it is
We’ll fight on the beach
For a really long speech
(not a breezy address
Or a postscript on Hess)
But a lovely long speech,
A superbly long speech
An embarrassing speech from a Minister.
—fro, The Complete Poems of Noel Coward, published by Methuem Drama, London 2011 © NIC Avebtales as heritors to the estate of Noel Cowatd