Has Britain lost its stiff upper lip?

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Self-restraint has long been part of our cultural DNA, but as the therapy culture gathers pace are we in danger of becoming a nation prone to tears and tantrums at the slightest opportunity?

The Duchess of Devonshire has shocked us to the core. In an interview in the March issue of Tatler, the last Mitford sister, now nearly 90, says the British stiff upper lip is quivering like blancmange. No one used to be sloppy and sentimental, she says. "It was all rather skated over. It wasn't the thing to keep belly-aching."...

It all started, this slow slide towards puddles of very public tears, with the Diana moment. That was when we realised that our stiff upper had started to wobble. "We've always allowed outpourings of collective joy – coronations, jubilees, cup finals," says the historian Juliet Gardiner, author of The Thirties: An Intimate History (HarperPress, £30). "But people are afraid of grief. Diana released the floodgates."

It's hard to remember today just how extraordinary the public outpouring seemed in 1997. This was Britain, after all, proud of its Blitz spirit, its black humour and its understatement. Even romantic heroes, from James Bond to Hugh Grant, only ever betrayed extreme emotion by a slight tensing of the jaw. But within hours of the death of the Princess of Wales in a car crash in Paris, a youthful Tony Blair – in office just a few months after a landslide Labour victory – faced the cameras. She had been, he said, "the people's princess" and would stay that way "in our hearts and our memories forever".

Blair's approval rating shot up to more than 90 per cent because he had pitched it exactly right. This was what a shocked nation wanted: emotion openly expressed. As the flowers, notes and teddy bears piled up in a shiny, fluttering carpet outside Kensington Palace, the British public waited for more. Respectfully, but then with mounting hostility, they looked for a similar display of well-phrased grief from the head of the royal family.

But the Queen, a dutiful monarch, had been brought up to mourn in private.

It was a clash of two completely different worlds in one small country. It seemed, quite suddenly, as if dignified silence could be interpreted as cold and unfeeling.

You could, of course, argue that we're well rid of the stiff upper lip because it belongs to another age, a way of being British that's tied up with class, wealth and the playing fields of Eton. Phillip Hodson, fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, says: "The stiff upper lip comes from the heyday of the British Empire."

You could only hold on to vast possessions, he says, by pretending that you were "somehow superior, immune to the weaknesses of the rabble and the masses". But nowadays the stiff upper lip may have outlived its usefulness. "There's something much healthier about the new Britain," he says. "Whether sad or happy, we're now prepared to cry."...

Historian Juliet Gardiner has just finished writing a new book on the Blitz, out in September to coincide with the 70th anniversary. Yes, she says, keeping morale high during the war was vitally important and people did just carry on as normal during the Blitz, to the great surprise of the government, which had cleared mental hospitals in readiness for people suffering from "war neurosis".

What this meant, in reality, was that many people just suffered in silence, often for years afterwards. "I think the collapse of the stiff upper lip is a good thing," Gardiner says. "I think today we've reached a happy medium – we're able to share emotion rather than repress it."

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