One indestructible English myth says this land is uniquely fit for eccentrics to live in. The white cliffs do not just keep invaders out, they contain the nutters too. They are the velvet rope before the padded cell of national life. Beyond this point — the weird, the barking, the barmy, and Noel Edmonds.

Whether the eccentric in question is Sir Isaac Newton, or that bloke in Port Talbot who dresses like a baked bean, they are said to represent this blessed — and peculiar — plot. American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson knew of no other country but England, he said, “where any personal eccentricity is so freely allowed.”

Eccentrics, we tell ourselves, are the oddballs on the outside who end up changing the mainstream for the better. Cracks who let the light in.

It’s a well-worn story, repeated by J.S. Mill, Edith Sitwell, and Christopher Hitchens. When Mill elaborated it in 1859, he was already warning “that so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time”. This, too, is part of the tradition. England’s eccentrics are felt to be an endangered species, dying out. Squashed by the forces of conformity: mass education, mass media, the ever-increasing uptake in psychiatric drug use.

This tale has something in it, but it’s probably closer to the truth to note that the eccentric was swallowed whole and digested by another type — the exhibitionist. Exhibitionists want to be loved. Their self-esteem is franchised out to other people, creating an air of desperation about them. There’s no endzone, no landing strip. It never stops. They say: “I am alive, I am alive, I am alive.” The exhibitionist courts disaster.

The eccentric, who is rarer, does not really consider himself eccentric at all. The world is eccentric, and they are normal. It’s an attitude that makes them freer than other people, because it does not depend on other people to exist. Unpretentious and unassuming, they nevertheless have a tendency towards taking one or two personal qualities to a heretical extreme. The eccentric courts embarrassment.

These types are easily confused. Count Binface, the needily satirical candidate for London Mayor, is a glittering example of this. Regularly hailed by the press, foreign and domestic, as a quintessential example of the ‘Great British eccentric’, the sad reality is that the Count would push his nan into a lake for a slice of recognition.

He has one joke. He makes a politician’s evening worse by hovering behind them on the night of a vote count dressed as a bin. This week it will be poor, hapless Shaun Bailey’s turn. When the Conservative candidate’s defeated face is flash-photographed, adorns newsprint, and loops on the 24 hour channels, there will be a man dressed as a bin behind him.

That, as far as I can tell, is the point of Count Binface. That’s it. Is it funny? Maybe the first time around it was, when he did it to Theresa May, in 2017. Then he did it once more, to Boris Johnson, in 2019. But again?

There’s nothing else there. A 20-minute interview between Binface and Owen Jones feels longer than a Scandinavian SlowTV epic about a train making a 50-hour journey between Brønnøysund and Stjørdalshalsen. With fewer laughs.

Binface, like Screaming Lord Sutch before him, is a garden gnome of English political history: garish, hollow, and bafflingly popular with a gormless minority. Both are exhibitionists, not eccentrics.

When Mill made his warning in the mid-nineteenth century, the high tide of the homegrown eccentric was already washing out, and the tide of the exhibitonist was washing in.

(Mill’s small contribution to eccentricity in his own time was a description, in his Autobiography, of his dreadful, narrow-minded wife Harriet, as a greater thinker than himself. He wrote that she was more poetic than Shelley too — for which he became an instant national laughingstock.)

The world-class English eccentrics were usually men, usually aristocrats, and usually born in the eighteenth century. There was nothing cuddly about them, no chance of them ever becoming national treasures (I suspect that this is what Count Binface wants — to win Strictly and co-author children’s books with David Walliams). Insulated by money and status, their oddities and manias grew wild.

Take the politicians alone. There was an eccentric in every rotten borough: the profligates (Charles James Fox), the rakes obsessed with orgies (Francis Dashwood), the proto-populist firebrands (John Wilkes). James ‘Wicked Jimmy’ Lowther, who sat in the Commons for twenty-seven years, had two overriding preoccupations: stinginess and having affairs. These combined when his favourite mistress died. He could not bear to bury her, or pay for a funeral. So he had her embalmed, thereafter using her glass-fronted coffin as a sideboard in his dining room.

Anthony Henley was the MP for Southampton in the 1720s. Once he received a request from his constituents that he should vote against some tax changes proposed in the budget. He replied in a letter that he was “surprised at your insolence in troubling me at all…. May God’s curse light upon you, and may it make your women as open and as free to the excise officers as your wives and daughters have always been to me while I have represented your scoundrel corporation.”

Henley did not stand for the borough again.

His political career was longer than John ‘Mad Jack’ Mytton’s. A high-spirited colonel who took his seat in Parliament on a warm day in June, Mytton, who regularly surprised dinner guests by riding a bear around his dining room, found the debate boring.

He lost his patience, left and never returned. He had only been elected after a hard campaign in Shrewsbury, where he walked among his future constituents with ten-pound notes fixed to his hat. These were replaced as soon as they were taken, so Mytton ended up spending £10,000 in a few days, or £899,186.77 in today’s money.

After drinking five bottles of port every morning for most of his adult life, Mytton eventually died in the 1830s — in a debtor’s prison.

Eccentricity was vindictively competitive back then, full of spontaneous boys-club one-upmanship, and an escalating, balls-out weirdness that was both joyous and grotesque. To call it a golden age of eccentricity, which sounds gooey and nostalgic, is too far. They must have been awful up close.

But they do illustrate the difference between eccentrics and exhibitionists. Unlike Count Binface, none of them wanted to be liked. It’s impossible to imagine them being heckled at a stand-up comedy night, bothering the Edinburgh Fringe, or entering Britain’s Got Talent.

The eccentric took his last dinosaur steps long before the forces that are usually blamed for their demise arrived. It was part of the great Victorian make-over: discipline, self-control, fig leaves. Coffee after dinner, not port. As Mill’s writing shows, the Victorians became sentimental about eccentrics. The only Regency wild man to survive fully-formed into the reign of the little Queen was Colonel Charles De Laet Waldo Sibthorp, a long-serving, long-suffering, long-fulminating MP for Lincoln.

Sibthorp set a standard for reaction unequalled in parliamentary history. He was against Catholic Emancipation, against the Reform Act, against the Maynooth Grant, against patented water closets, against sanitary inspectors, and against the Great Exhibition — because Prince Albert was a foreigner.

The only business an Englishman had going abroad, Sibthorp reckoned, was to wage war. Innovation was a “dangerous thing”; reform, he told the house, was what he “detested, as I detest the Devil.” As soon as it was invented, he began a fruitless war against the railway, complaining that they “encourage the working class to move about.”

If Sibthorp were alive now he would milkshaked every time he crossed Parliament Square. If he appeared on Question Time #SibthorpScum would trend for twelve hours. But Victorian liberals — more robustly confident than their contemporaries today — dispatched him with generous laughter, not hatred. Charles Dickens described Sibthorp as a “‘a militia man, with a brain slightly damaged and, quite unintentionally, the most amusing man in the house.” He appeared in Punch over 345 times, always at the fag end of a joke.

The roaring 18th century English eccentric was made safe, an object for sweet reminiscences, like a holiday postcard stuck on a fridge. Biographies and bestiaries of them proliferated — In the Days of the Dandies (1890), The Book of Wonderful Characters (1869), English Eccentricities and Eccentrics (1866), The Life of John Mytton (1870). There would still be eccentrics after this point, but eccentricity was also a guise, slung on the rack of panto costumes that the exhibitionist could wear. It became a choice, even a strategy. The spontaneity was gone.

You can glimpse these changes in the career of the Tory statesman Robert Cecil. He was an immensely wealthy Marquess, and Prime Minister three times. He appeared to disdain ambition. During his maiden Commons speech he paused, yawned, and sat down — he found it all too tedious to carry on with. He turned down the premiership the first two times he was offered it.

Cecil was scruffy too — once arrested on the grounds of his estate on suspicion of being a poacher, once refused entry to the casino at Monte Carlo because he looked like a tramp. The impression is of an accidental Prime Minister, a lovable eccentric somehow forced into No.10 under duress.

But who becomes Prime Minister three times by accident? Cecil undermined all his privileges with a look of ragged incompetence. It made them stronger. His tramp act, and his understatement, made the vanity of his rivals look ridiculous.

Though Cecil is never compared with Boris Johnson, they are very much alike — pretend luxury slobs, and sly exhibitionists, who squeezed this old Regency idea of eccentricity out of a bottle and smeared it on their faces. The difference between them and Count Binface comes down to having a much better education, and a much better act.

For a long time, we have preferred exhibitionists to eccentrics. We talk a good game about fairness and decency, and let foreign despots buy up our football clubs, and look away when Philip Green is garlanded with every prize. We say we celebrate kooks, and the last one we produced was Chris Eubank over 30 years ago.

Boris Johnson’s thumping victory over Jeremy Corbyn was a clear case in point. Exhibitionists beat eccentrics in England, often by pretending to be them. Zoologists call this aggressive mimicry, and your grandmother called it a wolf in sheep’s clothing. In England how often is faked eccentricity a disguise for predators?

At a much lower level, the sympathetic, chummy, punch-in-the-arm coverage Count Binface receives from the press, compared with the staggering nastiness directed from all sides at the utterly eccentric — if not quite harmless — Piers Corbyn, also running for Mayor, demonstrates this. The Victorians would have laughed at Piers, we will end up chucking him in prison.

Compare us with our nearest neighbours. The French gave the world the Marquis du Sade, À rebours and Surrealism. We have the Marquess of Bath, David Copperfield and Russell Brand. Perhaps, ultimately, we are not as strange as we like to think we are.