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The unstoppable rise of British Twee
Cringe has become all-dominant in our national culture
Back in the Swinging Sixties, when London’s sharp decline as the capital of an industrial and global military power coincided with its rise as a centre of pop culture, Peter Cook famously warned that ‘Britain is in danger of sinking giggling into the sea.’
This was during the famed satire boom, a movement that helped to spur a golden age of comedy and yet also undermined the very benevolent institutions that had made life so pleasant for the satirists.
‘Everyone is being satirical, everything is a send-up,’ Barry Humphries lamented even then: ‘There’s an infuriating frivolity, cynicism and finally a vacuousness.’
And here we are; now that the cultural revolution is fully complete, this sort of frivolity has become an ingrained part of British culture. It’s almost who we are. Frivolity marks all national events, including those involving the Royal Family, which are overwhelmed with a particular style of British Twee.
Once culturally marginal — a series of aesthetic mannerisms associated with greetings cards and downmarket children’s books — twee is now the establishment style,’ he wrote: ‘When the Queen was presented to her subjects at the coronation 70 years ago, the emphasis was on dignity and mystery: uniformed soldiers, a naval review, the BBC’s cameras forbidden from capturing the sovereign’s face in close-up. In the 1950s, this was still the language of power: formal, pompous, sternly detached. Parading for the Queen in 2022 were Teletubbies, a man in a Shaun the Sheep costume, women dressed as afternoon tea, a towering motorised cake.
Twee is now a cultural default; the distinctive style of our age. Our emojis, gifs and memes will mark us as surely to the generations of the future as the wing collars, tailcoats and elaborate ceremonies of social deference marked our ancestors. Grown-up men and women love Disney and Harry Potter.
Twee is egalitarian, anti-highbrow and obsessed with childhood, he says. ‘A love of childish things is a mark of democratic taste and an aversion to pomposity. Britain, with its long (often admirable) tradition of anti-intellectualism is especially vulnerable.’
Marriott concludes that ‘I can’t bring myself to hate Paddington and corgis but twee can be as oppressive as the formal, serious culture that preceded it. If our ancestors denied themselves the silly, child-like side of human nature, we now ourselves deny its solemn and difficult aspects. Twee is an aesthetic for an age uninterested in ethical complexity, which prefers good and bad as neatly separated as they are at Hogwarts. It fits the childish behaviour of social media’s most active users who swing between condemnatory temper tantrums and cooing over anthropomorphised animal.’
He also notes how twee has been ‘appropriated by powerful corporations’ because ‘it’s easier to rip someone off with a smiling wide-eyed chatbot.’ In my experience, the more informal and ‘I’m yer mate’ a service provider is, the worse it treats its customers.
And that applies to social classes, too; the more informal a ruling elite behaves, the less they care about boring old customs, the less they can be trusted to do the right thing for the people they’re supposed to lead.
Tweeness is terrible, but there’s a particular indefinable, British kind of twee, which is infuriating but hard to articulate. British Twee, or British Cringe, is not so much a definable illness as more like a cluster of symptoms.
Cockwomble, as explained by Ben Sixsmith, is British Twee. Needless posh swearing is very British Twee; used sparsely, swearing is very effective, especially by people with RP accents; used liberally, it’s cringeworthy, especially when discussing politics. The post-referendum anti-Brexit campaign was filled with British Twee, mixing both a loathing of the country with an assumption of cultural superiority, all done in a self-consciously frivolous way.
This kind of Twee British Cringe, because it’s at once both self-hating and also uniquely self-obsessed, seems to suppose that certain British things are uniquely terrible — the awfulness of our government, or the prejudice of our great unwashed — but certain British things are uniquely brilliant and envied, such as the BBC and NHS, not to mention our famous sense of humour.
British Twee is the patriotism of the soft-left. While consciously anti-nationalist, this kind of tweeness is obsessed with defining British national character and values. This reaches its peak with pride about Britain’s universal healthcare, something enjoyed by literally every developed country except the United States.
And what does define national character and ‘British values’? Queuing, gin, tea, Harry Potter, and fish and chips (with the tedious proviso that, ackshuaally, fish and chips was brought over by immigrants.)
It's twee to define a country by any values, especially such ephemeral matters as what beverage it prefers. Values don’t actually matter to a nation; what makes a land pleasant to live in is a shared sense of identity and history, creating social capital which allows prosocial norms to flourish. That’s how you get to Denmark.
The real purpose of a sense of patriotism is posterity — you care about your ancestors because you care about your descendants, and the descendants of your family and friends. A national obsession with the fripperies of British identity is the reverse; it’s cringe, the same cringe unleashed in the 1960s during the satire boom but which has become the national vibe.
This will be an unpopular view but ‘Keep calm and carry on’, the never-used Second World War poster, was in my opinion a good example of British Twee, a slogan that grew in popularity with the growing problem of terrorism. Just as much twee is cynicism and despair masked as irony, this was the pretence of Victorian-Churchillian stoicism covering up what was really learned helplessness. There are an estimated 20,000 or more potential jihadis in Britain — this is not a joke, and it’s not going to go away by laughing it off. ‘Carrying on’ is what got us into this mess.
The same goes for the other deep-rooted problems affecting a country that can’t afford complacency. To put it bluntly, we’re now quite poor, and we’re going to get poorer. Public services are collapsing, crime is on the rise, everyone I know below the age of 35 wants to leave. Immigration, the main reason we hamstrung our economy to leave the EU, is now running at record levels; the Tories promised to get it down to five figures, and instead it’s pushing seven. Housing costs are running at astronomical levels and family formation — the ultimate register of cultural optimism — has collapsed.
And the cultural leaders who like to think of Britain as forward thinking and global and all those good things can only see their national identity through the prism of recent pop culture; this is not ‘patriotism’, it’s the sad spectacle of a person trapped in middle-age misery wallowing in childhood nostalgia.
Tweeness is the mark of a people who know deep down that it’s right and healthy to honour the gods of their ancestors, but don’t believe in them anymore. They can only be treated ironically, as parodies, while things that should be laughed at are treated with reverence and even fear.