Charmingly incoherent

An opening ceremony for a "self-analysing" people.

 

Last night’s Olympics opening ceremony provoked some interesting comments on Twitter. Highlights include the Spectator journalist Harry Cole tweeting: “Not even communist China were so brazen as to extoll their nationalised stranglehold on their country so blatantly”. Meanwhile the Conservative MP Aidan Burley wrote: “The most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen – more than Beijing, the capital of a communist state! Welfare tribute next?” While other Tory MPs distanced themselves from their colleague, Burley followed up with this additional reflection: “Thank God the athletes have arrived! Now we can move on from leftie multicultural crap. Bring back red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones!”

Like most of us on Twitter that night, I too was contemplating the ways in which the Olympic Games have always balanced carnivalesque with depoliticised celebration – the creative spontaneity of the director alongside socio-political rituals binding both audience and performers, openly linked to citizenship. The opening ceremony of the Olympic games is always a commentary on the construction of community.

The ceremony can be an unambiguously aggressive glorification of the state. China’s version at the Biejing games in 2008 attempted a kind of direct indoctrination. Its regulated spectacle celebrated “shengshi” – the age of prosperity before 19th-century decline. Tellingly, it lacked any real idea of individual artistic merit. And yet in many ways it worked. While pro-Tibet sympathisers interrupted the journey of the Olympic torch in Europe and North America, the issue was quickly forgotten once the bombast of the opening ceremony took hold. Many misread China’s intentions as tending in a liberalising direction. But the 2008 Games marked the start of even tighter political control, exemplified by the fortunes of artist Ai Weiwei, one of the designers of the Bird’s Nest Stadium. “I don’t believe in the so-called Olympic spirit," he wrote in a recent Guardian article. “The state and the Olympic committee failed to take a position on many major social and political issues”

Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony last night surprised many. It was transgressive in parts, and avoided the kind of explicit constitutional praise that marked China’s Olympics. His paean to the NHS, the evocation of the chaotic upheaval of the Industrial Revolution, the inclusion of the suffragettes and the MV Empire Windrush – the ship that brought the first postwar West Indian immigrants to the UK – allowed some to accuse him of making a selective, left-wing reading of British history.

There was a charming incoherence, too, about Boyle's cultural mashup. I’m not sure how Kenneth Branagh, delivering Caliban’s speech from Shakespeare’s Tempest – “Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises” – while at the same time dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, would have resonated abroad. The music meandered from the nostalgic pastoralism of Elgar through to Dizzee Rascal, by way of noisegaze artists Fuck Buttons.

But perhaps the beauty of Boyle’s creation lay precisely in its ambiguity. For this was a ceremony that attempted to show the British as a “self-analysing people” – a conscious decision after the spectacle of Beijing. Not everyone is convinced, though. More than 100 people were arrested outside the Olympic Stadium last night after a cyclists’ protest.

Fireworks during the Olympic opening ceremony in London (Photo: Getty Images)

En Liang Khong is an arts writer and cellist.

Follow on twitter @en_khong

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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.