Danny Boyle set the bar for London 2012 in the opening ceremony and he set it high. Instead of giving us the embarrassing spectacle of a Britain desperate to convince the world that it was still a force to be reckoned with, we were presented with the image of a self-effacing people who embrace change and diversity, and find success when they marry collective effort with individual genius. Could our athletes and Olympic volunteers follow the arc of Boyle’s narrative and deliver an event to make us all proud?
In the following weeks, it was difficult not to be drawn in. After a few nervous days where it seemed that only our reputation as good losers was going to be enhanced, it all began to come together. There was edge-of-your-seat excitement, shout-out-loud triumphs, girlie screams and man-hugs. An unforgettable Saturday evening in the Olympic Stadium provided the nation with a communal experience rare in these days of modern multi-media. As a result, a feeling of national pride swept over the country, so warm that it pushed the rain clouds away.
Yet there were some who struggled with this new-found national pride. People who had never felt such emotions before looked at the massed Union Jacks being waved, heard the constant refrain of ‘God Save the Queen’ and felt decidedly queasy.
The long tradition of internationalism has resulted in the left having a blind spot when confronted with expressions of national identity. Many don’t bother to differentiate between nationalism – wanting self-determination for your country – and patriotism – taking pride in your country. Some even go so far as to be positively patriotic about any country that is opposing Britain at sport or in politics.
This is ironic, given that patriotism, like socialism, comes in many varieties, with nuances that are deliberately ignored by detractors. Up close and personal, individual identity is a many-layered construct in which we choose to define ourselves by those things that make us proud to be part of an imagined community.
Beyond our personal control there exists a meta-narrative, which society seeks to enforce through education, tradition and the promotion of certain values. We in turn define ourselves in relation to this version of our national identity – some embrace it, finding comfort in a sense of belonging, while others reject it completely. The question we might ask ourselves, as we emerge from the warm glow of the Olympics, is whether the euphoria of the past two weeks has caused a seismic shift in the meta-narrative of Britishness?
We have witnessed two distinct forms of patriotism on display this summer. The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee required us, as subjects, to be interested in the spectacle of an old married couple standing on the deck of a barge while it slowly proceeded down the Thames in the pouring rain. This was patriotism as duty – we were expected to be respectful for no other reason than Elizabeth Windsor is our monarch. The message being sent was that, while the Queen is on the throne and God is in His heaven, we can be proud to be British.
The patriotism displayed in the Olympic Stadium was much less dutiful. Here we were invited to engage with not only with the members of Team GB, but also with the possibility of their defeat. Her Majesty could be on her throne and God in His heaven, but if Mo Farah got boxed in on the final bend of the race, then our sense of national pride could come crashing down. In that moment, between the all-to-familiar sense of disappointment and the unexpected elation of victory after victory, something shifted.
The shock waves were felt far and wide. Morrissey flew into a rage, denouncing the ‘blustering jingoism’ of the Olympics, his knee-jerk reaction blinding him to the fact that jingoism is defined by its bellicosity and the crowds in the stadia were anything but hostile to foreigners. Peter Hitchens came closer to correctly judging the mood when he complained that the Olympics showed that Britain had forgotten that it was once a monarchist Christian country.
This scale of this change was reflected in Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony, which took the date of the last London Olympics, 1948, as the beginning of modern Britain. It was the year that the NHS was founded – Boyle had his nurses dance in late 40s uniforms. It also saw the first wave of post-war immigration – and there was the Empire Windrush, sailing into the stadium. Harder to express in such a pageant was the fact that, in 1948, the Royal Mint removed the title of Emperor of India from our coinage. From now on George VI would only be D:G:BR:OMN:REX – by Grace of God, King of Britain.
In the years since, although Britain has changed fundamentally, those who have taken it upon themselves to enforce the national meta-narrative have clung ever tighter to a version of events that has come to be known as ‘Our Island Story’. This portrays the British as a people who are white, homogeneous, monarchist and Christian, whose forefathers ruled the greatest empire the world has ever seen – a mind-set neatly symbolised by the Union Jack.
That’s why some felt uneasy when they saw the massed flag-waving in the stadium. Here, before us on the running track, were three good examples of how our society had benefited from multiculturalism, how the collective provision of free education, healthcare had helped these three individuals to achieve their full potential. Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah are the embodiment of the diverse Britain of the 21st century. But where was our symbol of who we think we are?
That question was answered by the athletes themselves – as soon as they won their titles, they reached for the Union Jack. When the BNP raise our flag, they are asking us to share their prejudices which seek to divide our communities. When it is held aloft by a mixed-raced woman, a ginger haired guy and an immigrant named Mohamed in the Olympic Stadium, they are asking us to share in the success of a state-funded, multicultural project that brings people together. And for the millions watching on tv around the world, they are challenging the traditional image of Britishness.
Those who cling to ‘Our Island Story’ have long relied on the fact that we on the left were inept at constructing a counter-narrative capable of uniting the British people in a sense of national pride. Danny Boyle, with his ‘Isles of Wonder’, has provided us with our own founding story and our athletes and Olympic volunteers have offered us a glimpse of who we really are. Can a new spirit of engaged and transformational patriotism emerge from this experience? One that seeks to build a fairer, more inclusive tomorrow, rather than constantly rehashing a narrow vision of the past?
This post-Olympics glow will fade. It will still rain through the summer and the Daily Mail will continue to loudly complain that the glass is half empty, but we now have a positive image of a contemporary Britain and a feeling to go with it. We remain a nation of quirky individuals, but we now know that when we rise together – like the flames of Thomas Heatherwick’s Olympic cauldron – we are capable of creating something unique and impressive. Something that makes us all proud.