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20 September 2022

Why we should celebrate British sentimentality

The emotional openness shown after the death of the Queen makes us a better and kinder country.

By Tomiwa Owolade

It is impossible to imagine Queen Elizabeth II moaning about a leaking pen. She embodied stoicism and self-sacrifice. Her feelings were always kept in check. Her death was a grave loss to many because her virtues were seen as quintessentially British. She was what we are, or at least what we aspire to be. In losing her, we lose part of ourselves.

Charles III, from what we know of him, represents a riskier character: a man who wears his heart on his sleeve. Widely shared footage of Charles raging at his malfunctioning pen at Hillsborough Castle is not simply an amusing video of a cantankerous old man. It marks a profound shift away from the style of Elizabeth II.

Many people reacted warmly to that video. It had distinct echoes of Basil Fawlty. But Charles, like Elizabeth, is not simply a person. He is the standard-bearer of Britain. And in terms of culture and character, we are as much Charles as we are Elizabeth.

British people are not always emotionally straitlaced. We are also a sentimental nation. We love melodrama and the tabloid press. Charles Dickens conceived effervescent characters, and read out many of his novels to the public with the verve of a matinée idol. William Hogarth was our most representative painter: his artworks were peopled not by inscrutable gentlemen but exuberant grotesques.

Georgian Britain, from which came the industrial revolution and a global maritime empire, was violently raucous. Political and religious riots were common. Parliament was not a citadel of civilised interaction but a cesspit.

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Many of our heroes, for better or worse, brimmed with passion. Winston Churchill cried often and many of his speeches were mawkish. One of the most iconic images of our national football team since the glories of 1966 is of Paul Gascoigne, who cried after being booked during the 1990 World Cup semi-final against Germany (he would have been barred from the final).

Probably our most famous king, Henry VIII, meanwhile, was angry enough to defy the leader of the country’s national religion and the most powerful man in Europe. Charles is not a replica. He knows our constitutional monarchy depends on the strict impartiality and discretion of the monarch. He knows he is meant to rise above politics. From now on his feelings must be disciplined, not loosened.

A culture that valorises emotional excess is not good for critical thinking. Anyone who questioned the role of the monarchy after the death of the Queen risked expulsion from civil society – every utterance had to be gushing. Some people said, with a seemingly straight face, that they thought she would live forever.

Taken too far, the sentimental strain that runs through this country’s culture and character can turn into something embarrassing. Paradoxically, the Queen was sometimes praised as reserved in the most unhinged way possible.

But in common with all cultural and national characteristics, it is a case of balancing extremes. Identity is never straightforward. The French are celebrated as the most emancipated people in the world: they got rid of their king more than once and gave the US the Statue of Liberty. When observing social status in areas such as fashion, however, the French are positively aristocratic.

America is the land of the free and the home of the brave. But as Samuel Johnson once observed: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” The US is supposedly the exemplar of meritocracy, a land where poor immigrants go to fulfil the “American Dream”. But as the British author and social scientist Richard Reeves has noted, “the US is more calcified by class than Britain, especially toward the top”. Because of the policy of legacy preferences, for instance, “the US is the only nation in the world, for example, where it is easier to get into college if one of your parents happened to go there”.

The British, by contrast, are infamous for an oppressive class hierarchy, refined and reinforced through a strict observance of decorum. Against this, though, we also possess an anarchic spirit. Our tolerance for wild characters is the upside of our emotive sensibility, and it is one of the greatest virtues of British liberty – we love eccentrics. It is why, for many centuries now, the UK has been one of the leading havens in the world for those people who defy the status quo.

When French dissidents have been exiled from their homeland, they have often come to Britain. And not just the Huguenots. Voltaire, the canonical Enlightenment thinker, loved Britain so much he wrote one of his books in English (Letters on the English). After Émile Zola, the novelist and public intellectual of fin de siècle France, came to the defence of Captain Dreyfus, a Jewish military officer falsely accused and convicted of being a spy for the Germans, he was exiled from France and came to Britain.

Throughout the 19th century Britain also hosted radical philosophers such as Karl Marx, Russian anarchists such as Peter Kropotkin and Italian revolutionary leaders such as Giuseppe Garibaldi. We loved Garibaldi so much we named a biscuit after him.

And one of the upsides of a tolerance for the radical and the eccentric is a sense of humour. A free society needs to be able to laugh at itself. Without this, we are in a state of constant tension and rigidity. Charles’s imbroglio with the pen was funny and we rightly laughed at it. We should cherish that laughter, and anything that offers us healthy respite from convention. It is essential for maintaining our freedom.

[See also: The Queue wasn’t just about grief, but our deep need to be part of something bigger]

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