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Last Updated: Monday, 20 September, 2004, 11:08 GMT 12:08 UK
Ballads,songs and speeches
by Edward Green

Blair with policeman
So, what's a policeman's lot like?
It's party conference season again - so here's a new challenge to pass the time: keeping an ear open for politicians using lines from the works of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Pay attention to a political debate on crime for any length of time and the chances are that, before too long, you will hear someone use one of the great clichés of the issue.

There will almost certainly be a reference to the "short, sharp shock" that offenders have coming to them. And somebody is bound to express their desire to 'let the punishment fit the crime'.

Popular sentiments, but not originally coined by politicians. They both come from The Mikado, the 1885 comic opera by William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.

Seen in context, in fact, they are rather stronger in meaning than a politician might wish.

The "short, sharp shock" so beloved of disciplinarians was originally suffered at the edge of a "cheap and chippy chopper".

And the wish to "let the punishment fit the crime" was expressed by a dictator whose preferred punishments were "humorous, but lingering, with either boiling oil or melted lead".

'Never would be missed'

Sometimes, however, the references are more deliberate. As a Conservative minister, Peter Lilley famously quoted The Mikado when he announced that he had "a little list" of people who "never would be missed".

Peter Lilley
"short sharp shock"
"no probable, possible shadow of doubt"
"here's a how-de-doo"
"Modified rapture"
"Here's a state of things"
"What never?" - "Hardly ever"
These unfortunates included "young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing queue" and "all those sponging socialists".

And while Mr Lilley, right, was not putting them down for execution (as in the original "Little List" song), it reinforced his reputation as a hardliner.

A similar revision came at the Last Night of the Proms earlier this month, when the Little List was adapted by lyricist Kit Hesketh-Harvey to include "The judicial humourist - Lord Hutton's on the list".

Indeed, Gilbert and Sullivan songs seem to have particular relevance to Home Office policy. The song A Policeman's Lot is Not a Happy One, from The Pirates of Penzance, provides a popular phrase for the media to use whenever policing issues are raised.

A quick search of Hansard, in fact, reveals a constant stream of references, many from the House of Lords, where the songs are particularly popular.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, was welcomed to the Lords with special warmth after the Bishop of Portsmouth had announced that Dr Williams was "a keen Gilbert and Sullivan buff".

'Widely misunderstood'

But not everyone is so keen. The opera Iolanthe portrayed the Lord Chancellor as a ridiculously-dressed buffoon and the Lords as privileged incompetents.

The Lord Chancellor
'A pleasant occupation'
That image has permeated the national consciousness to such an extent that Baroness Williams, the Liberal Democrat leader in the Lords, said in January 2004: "It is widely misunderstood by the public that we are something other than a late version of Gilbert and Sullivan."

Such an impression helped the case of Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, when he backed the abolition of his own office under the Constitutional Reform Bill. He is reported to have expressed a wish to end the Lord Chancellor's "Gilbert and Sullivan" status.

And there are dozens of other examples from parliamentary documents.

"I never use a big, big D"
"I always voted at my party's call"
"A policeman's lot is not a happy one"
"Let the punishment fit the crime"
See internet links (right) for more examples
The EU's title of "'High representative" has been criticised as too close to the impressive titles in Gilbert and Sullivan - most famously, the Mikado's Lord High Executioner and his assistant the Lord High Everything Else.

And ministers have been described as "gondoliers" for their habit of refusing to admit to uncertainty, recalling the opera The Gondoliers, which spoke of a tale free from "all possible doubt whatever".

But all this should come as no surprise. The majority of the Savoy Operas, as Gilbert and Sullivan's main works are known, set out specifically to mock the politics and politicians of the day.

Over a century later, they seem as relevant as ever - perhaps because British politics has not changed as much as we might think. It is ironic that Gilbert and Sullivan should be so beloved of the Establishment even as their songs are used against it.

To quote The Pirates of Penzance, you might even call it "a most ingenious paradox".

So the Magazine is proud to offer any reader spotting a quotation from Gilbert and Sullivan in use at this year's party conferences a place on a little list of honour.

Suggestions, please, via the form below.

Your e-mail address
Town/city and country
G&S line, including name of speaker and date

Disclaimer: The BBC may edit your comments and cannot guarantee that all e-mails will be published.

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