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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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.