It’s impossible to imagine Queen Elizabeth II complaining about a leaky pen. She embodied stoicism and selflessness. His feelings were still under control. His death was a grave loss to many because his virtues were seen as quintessentially British. She was who we are, or at least who we aspire to be. By losing it, we lose a 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 in his faulty enclosure at Hillsborough Castle isn’t just a funny video of a cantankerous old man. It marks a profound change from the style of Elizabeth II.
Many people reacted warmly to this video. He had distinct echoes of Basil Fawlty. But Charles, like Elizabeth, is not just a person. He is the flag bearer of Great Britain. And in terms of culture and character, we are as much Charles as Elizabeth.
Brits aren’t always emotionally stuck. We are also a sentimental nation. We love melodrama and the tabloid press. Charles Dickens designed effervescent characters and read many of his novels to the public with the verve of a morning idol. William Hogarth was our most representative painter: his works were peopled not with inscrutable gentlemen but with exuberant grotesques.
Georgian Britain, the originator of the Industrial Revolution and a global maritime empire, was fiercely rowdy. Political and religious riots were common. Parliament was not a citadel of civilized interaction but a cesspool.
Many of our heroes, for better or for worse, were overflowing with passion. Winston Churchill cried often and many of his speeches were cutesy. One of the most iconic images of our national football team since the glories of 1966 is that of Paul Gascoigne, who wept after being cautioned in the 1990 World Cup semi-final against Germany (he would have been excluded from the final).
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Probably our most famous king, Henry VIII, meanwhile was angry enough to challenge the leader of the country’s national religion and the most powerful man in Europe. Charles is not a replica. He knows that our constitutional monarchy depends on the strict impartiality and discretion of the monarch. He knows he’s supposed to rise above politics. From now on, his feelings must be disciplined, not relaxed.
A culture that values emotional excess is not good for critical thinking. Anyone who questioned the role of the monarchy after the Queen’s death risked being kicked out of civil society – every statement had to be gushing. Some people said, with a seemingly straight face, that they thought she would live forever.
Taken too far, the sentimental tension that runs through the culture and character of this country can turn into something embarrassing. Paradoxically, the queen has sometimes been praised as reserved in the most unbalanced way possible.
But, like all cultural and national characteristics, it is about balancing the extremes. Identity is never simple. The French are celebrated as the most emancipated people in the world: they got rid of their king more than once and gave the Statue of Liberty to the United States. Looking at 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 come we hear the loudest cries for freedom among the Negro drivers?” The United States is supposed to be the example of meritocracy, a land where poor immigrants go to achieve the “American Dream”. But as British author and social scientist Richard Reeves noted, “the United States is more class-calcified than Britain, especially towards the top.” Due to the policy of inherited preferences, for example, “the United States is the only country in the world, for example, where it is easier to get into college if one of your parents went there” .
The British, on the other hand, are infamous for an oppressive, refined class hierarchy reinforced by a strict adherence to decorum. Against this, however, we also possess an anarchic spirit. Our tolerance for wild characters is the flip side of our emotional sensitivity, and it’s one of the greatest virtues of British freedom – we love eccentrics. That is why, for many centuries now, the UK has been one of the world’s foremost havens for those who challenge the status quo.
When French dissidents were exiled from their homeland, they often came to Britain. And not just the Huguenots. Voltaire, the canonical Enlightenment thinker, loved Britain so much that he wrote one of his books in English (Letters on English). After Émile Zola, the novelist and public intellectual of end of century France, coming to the defense 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 was also home to 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 that we named a cookie after him.
And one of the benefits of a tolerance for the radical and the eccentric is a sense of humor. A free society must be able to laugh at itself. Without it, we are in a state of constant tension and rigidity. Charles’ entanglement with the pen was funny and we had a good laugh. We should cherish that laughter and anything that gives us a healthy respite from convention. It is essential to maintain our freedom.
[See also: The Queue wasn’t just about grief, but our deep need to be part of something bigger]