Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Harry and Meghan make you miss the British ‘stiff upper lip’

  • National character once exemplified by ‘keep calm and carry on’ now one of whining and whinging universally encouraged by social media

I searched online for the phrase “stiff upper lip”, and pictures of Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex came up. Google’s search engine, it seems, has a wicked sense of humour. (Try it, I am not making this up.)

The world’s most (in)famous royal couple are the very opposite of this much-touted British national character. You know, reserve and perseverance in the face of adversity; never complain, never explain.

From their Netflix docuseries to Harry’s ghostwritten memoirs, Spare, the pair have made a highly lucrative business out of explaining and complaining.

They have fully embraced the celebrity culture of spilling out everything in the United States. The prince is now more American than British and may have done more to damage the royal brand than his parents.

No wonder polite society in Britain is up in arms against the couple.

America’s reverse colonisation of the former mother country is complete. Not only does Britain today have no independent foreign policy, its own royal family are at the mercy of a former US actress.

That’s American imperialism for you, with a dash of TV soap opera.

Perhaps that’s appropriate. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “stiff upper lip” began as an American phrase in the first half of the 19th century and was only picked up in Britain in the second half. You can find it used in H. B. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Even as a former colonial subject, I am sad, though, about this British national character going out of fashion, probably gone for good even if Harry and Meghan never married.

‘SussexClass’ coming soon: Air New Zealand mocks Harry over memoir inaccuracy

While it may have produced generations of psychologically constipated men, you have to respect the national character of “keep calm and carry on” that frowned on whining and whinging, now encouraged and magnified universally by social media.

As an example, the late Robertson Davies once observed: “The love that dare not speak its name has become the love that won’t shut up.”

From Sir Francis Drake going off to fight the Spanish Armada to Rudyard Kipling’s poem If, resolve and “not making a fuss” have always been considered manly virtues.

There was, of course, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, in the Crimean War, that was immortalised by Lord Tennyson: “Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die”.

When Alfred North Whitehead, the Cambridge mathematician and one of the great but underappreciated philosophers of the last century, lost his only son in the first world war, he hid away all his photos and never spoke to anyone about his loss.

But in his later years, he developed a powerful cosmic philosophy whose vision few people understood but which likely offered him deep solace.

Imagine if he had gone to psychotherapy or written an autobiography to share his pain, 20th century philosophy would have been much poorer.

Unfortunately, the business model of Harry and Meghan – at least if they want to maintain their lavish lifestyle – is to share their pain and spill the beans on the royals.

Prince Harry’s ‘Spare’ breaks UK sales record on first day of release

There is however only so much dirty laundry to air before it runs out. Now with their mega docuseries and memoirs out, you imagine there is not much left. The couple may well have saved some for a rainy day or will have to generate some of their own.

When an interviewer asked Harry why he and his wife were keeping their royal titles, he questioned what difference it would make if they had dropped them. All the difference, of course! It’s only fun to watch when it’s the royals exposing other royals.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it,” Upton Sinclair famously observed.

An acrimonious divorce – with dark hints of domestic violence and racism – may at some point be required. The couple may then spill the beans on each other and make one last trip to the bank.