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With tragedy, Britons abandon stiff upper lip

People in Parliament Square, central London observe a three-minute silence on Jan. 5. for the Asian tsunami victims.
People in Parliament Square, central London observe a three-minute silence on Jan. 5. for the Asian tsunami victims. Stefan Rousseau / AP file
/ Source: NBC News

The flag on Buckingham Palace flew at half-staff, a gesture ordinarily observed to mark the passing of a member of the royal family. At midday, thousands of people across the United Kingdom came to a standstill, spending three minutes mourning those who were washed away by the Indian Ocean's devastating tsunami.

Subway trains came to a halt, buses pulled over, London’s Heathrow airport — one of the busiest in the world — suspended take-offs and landings, the stock exchange stopped trading.

This was Britain last week, united in grief for people from countries many thousands of miles away. Often regarded as a reserved nation, for the majority, there has certainly been no “stiff upper lip” in displaying compassion toward victims of the mass devastation.

The outpouring of grief manifested itself in many other ways, in particular, in the remarkable zeal with which members of the public are raising funds for the countries suffering in the wake of the disaster.

Fund-raising zeal
Ever since the news of the tsunami and its rapidly rising death toll hit the headlines, appeals for donations have been seen in most public places.

The sound of coins rattling in buckets held by volunteers pleading for contributions can be heard across the country. Checkout tills from newspaper stands to Harrods department store have notices asking customers to give what they can spare.

Already, private donations in Britain have neared $200 million.

The British have always been known to raise money for causes abroad. With annual charity events such as Comic Relief and Children in Need, gaining widespread attention.   

Band Aid’s “Do They Know It's Christmas” is a key example of Britain’s devotion to charity. In 1984 the now “Sir” Bob Geldof, deeply moved by the television reports he had seen from Ethiopia, called on the most prominent pop stars of the time to come together and make a Christmas-special chart single in 24 hours.

No. 1 song, again
Not only did the song immediately become No. 1, but proceeds from the sale of the single reached approximately $16 million at the time. This past Christmas, some 20 years later, the same song was performed by contemporary bands, this time for Sudan. It again reached the No. 1 spot in the charts, and is expected to raise over $40 million.

By comparison, by raising close to $200 million within 10 days of the tsunami disaster, the British public giving has managed to significantly eclipse the impressive $140 million it took Band Aid 20 years to raise.

The tsunami disaster not only demonstrates Britain’s fundraising prowess, but the amount that has been raised over this short period of time, from a population a fifth of the size of America, indicates that this tragedy has affected them more than any other.

The London Times wrote last week, “What is still striking is the gap between charitable giving in Britain and America. Partly this is because government in America has historically not been involved in areas of public life such as health, university education or social welfare, that have long been a state responsibility in Britain. Partly it is because Americans are brasher at wanting to see their names on brass plaques.”

Belies Britain's reputation as cold nation
The British have always been regarded as a nation conservative in nature. There are still those who feel that expressing too much emotion and passion is simply not English.

The three-minute silence, an idea suggested by the Dutch Prime Minister and which also had mass European participation, was regarded by a few as an inappropriate gesture.

Max Hastings a columnist at the British right-wing tabloid Daily Mail wrote “nothing seems more likely to diminish it [British sympathy] than the embarrassing mawkish, tasteless, repugnant gesture of decreeing an official three-minute silence for them today.” Hastings felt that the three-minute silence would also diminish the two-minute commemoration of the men and women who fell during the two world wars. However, the overwhelming numbers of Britons who took part in the silence seemed to reduce this notion to a minority view.

Cheers from a Conservative
Such opinions were also held by a Conservative Member of Parliament, Boris Johnson, who was heavily criticized and hounded for describing the city of Liverpool — hometown of Kenneth Bigley, who was beheaded in Iraq — as “wallowing” in a sense of grievance and being “hooked on grief.”

But Johnson had to concede that his view was certainly held by only a few in Britain. In the Daily Telegraph he wrote, “The important point, when the silence was finally broken, was that we of the curmudgeonly tendency did not appear to be in the majority. Some of us may have been initially resentful at the idea of being coerced, by some Brussels directive, into such a display; and yet by the end we were forced to concede that there must be something good in the simple fact that we spent some time, as a nation, meditating on the grim lives and deaths of those in developing countries.

“There is a corner of my heart that secretly believes in the brotherhood of man, and it was cheered yesterday by the idea that the planet was brought closer together.”

Old bastions show emotion
Displays of emotions are now projected by the old bastions of British society, namely the royal family. Princes William and Harry have joined in the effort to help the survivors of the tidal wave. They have been packing aid parcels for the tsunami victims at a Red Cross warehouse.

“We were watching a documentary about children orphaned in the disaster and it brought tears to our eyes,” Prince William said. “We were really, really upset about it.”

The coming together as a nation in grief was particularly noticed during the death of Princess Diana, when vast numbers of mourners flocked the streets around Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace.

Of course, grief for Diana and that for the tsunami victims cannot be compared, but the message that can be read from this is that, contrary to general perception, the British are not inhibited in showing their emotions.