This was Cameron’s Cool Britannia, a moment where we could ignore the reality of Bullingdon Club Britain and pretend instead that we were led by Kenneth Branagh in a multicultural bliss. This is West Wing mind games, project the reality you’d like onto the world you despair.
I’m sorry to break with consensus but it won’t do. The squeeling of excitement about the Queen (the real Queen!!!) and Mr Bean plus Beckham morphing into 007 was everywhere. Gushing praise for Danny Boyle’s Olympics was ubiquitous: “Has Danny made Britain Great again?” The headlines brought together Jingoistic Brits and the liberal left.
As late night Friday entertainment it was brilliant. Yes it was clever, sometimes moving, funny, well produced and conceived. But there’s a problem with Boyle’s Britain: it isn’t real.
Voldemort attacking the NHS has been help up as some great political fightback. ‘That’ll show them’. No it won’t. The health system, the last sinew of British collective identity is being torn apart by the Tories, upping the ante from the work done by New Labour to privatise huge swathes of British society.
What would really ‘show them’ would be for large sections of the English electorate to vote for parties not focused around a neoliberal consensus – and for parties or movements to show real leadership. That would require a huge swing to the Green Party, (something not very likely, given also Caroline Lucas’s suicide pact of standing down as leader just as she’d created some kind of national profile). But there’s other problems with Boyle’s Britain and the wave of self-satisfaction it’s induced.
The idea of one happy British family is quickly traduced by the hate-campaign against Kim Kittle and the Welsh footballers, led by the Daily Mail but evident across the popular press/twitterati. The bile and bitterness that Stella McCartney’s design for Team GB outfits was the start of it, and won’t be the end f it. This idea that you’d force a British identity by compulsory singing of the English national anthem is at hilarious juxtaposition to the warm glowing reviews of progressive unity brought on by Friday’s opening ceremony. Nor is it, as some have had it, a purely cultural event. Pro-unionist editors across Scotland leapt on the chance to declare this a fatal blow to the Yes campaign, rightly seeing it as a piece of (quite beautiful) propaganda.
This idea of a shared story, identity, culture and established sense of self only makes sense when it’s reduced to a story about England. The constant conflation and (oops) mix-up between England and Britain is rife, from listing players in ‘Team GB’ to the tunes and icons used by Boyle.
What does this ceremony tell us about ourselves, our identity? Opined the Beebs commentators. What it told us was that Scotland is a fleeting, marginal irritant to modern Anglo-Britain. Glimpsed with kids at Edinburgh Castle, then, oddly by Tony Stanger’s try, that was about it.
Leaving aside the hyper-commodified, hyper-militarised spectacle that is the Olympics, much good may come of it in renewal of the East End. I don’t know. But drafting in soldiers to fill empty seats or the farce of the Hampden football ticket giveaway mark an event that has failed as a live sporting spectacle. This is a tv games and one unlikely to shift Britain’s reality as one where a childhood obesity rates are rife. For an event sponsored by Coke and McDonald’s that’s maybe not a surprise, but one of the key claims was this would ‘inspire a generation’ to better fitness.
A key problem is attempting to use the Olympics as a last gasp device for unifying Britain. Left as a London event it makes sense. Trying to con people this is for everybody it just descends into farce. If the Olympics was in Aberdeen I’d have trouble persuading people it was useful to people in Bournemouth.
I’m not against the Olympics – and the sporting spectacle may rise above the corporate whoredom to genuinely inspire – but part of the response from the liberal left was deeply depressing. There’s a sort of faux-radicalism at work here. Having failed to create any credible opposition alternative to the Tory-Liberal coalition, liberal England has retreated into cultural self-congratulation as it recedes into terminal decline and schools, hospitals and public services are systematically sold off and bought off. We shouldn’t be fobbed off by cultural nepotism in the face of this assault on society.