The Olympics opening ceremony shouldn't be a political football

Neither the left nor the right has a strong claim to an "authentic" British identity which their opponents cannot engage with.

The dissonance of "an isle full of noises" was at the heart of Danny Boyle's celebration of the role of democracy, dissent and disruptive technologies in making modern Britain. So it would be rather un-British if nobody tried to start a bit of an argy-bargy about it all.

But attempts to turn the Olympic opening ceremony into a political football have been rather unconvincing.  Most people thought the show both represented Britishness well (by 61% to 9%) and was entertaining (65% to 7%), which seem strong findings given that another one in five of those surveyed in the snap poll by Survation hadn’t seen the event.  Newspapers from across the political spectrum were highly positive too, with the Telegraph titles praising Britain’s "can-do" ability to deliver a spectacle, and liberal papers warming to the inclusive vision of Britain.

Boyle’s show did demonstrate a  "Heineken ability" in prompting feelings of British pride among those who are more often allergic to that idea. Sarah Ditum captured this thought in her blog, writing that "this was something else: a vision of Britain, its history and its people that I recognized, felt good about and (despite my reflex cynicism) loved".

That feeling of liberal pride in the opening ceremony seemed to grow over the weekend, stoked by the sense that the right found less to enjoy in the Olympic curtain-raiser. Most of the attention was grabbed by Tory MP Aidan Burley, winning fifteen minutes of infamy for the second time in a short political career. He can’t have intended his 'tweet before you think' dismissal of the show as "leftie multi-cultural crap" to spark the (eminently predictable) social media and political furore which followed. Burley seemed unaware, too, of the "stop digging" maxim of political common sense as, having oddly claimed that he did not wish to criticise multiculturalism itself (which he would have every right to do if he thought so) his attempts to elucidate - including bemoaning a "huge focus on rap music", presumably referencing the ceremony's sole rapper Dizzee Rascal - struck many ears as signalling discomfort with something else; any portrayal of the settled reality of Britain as a multi-ethnic society, even when opening an Olympics in east London. 

But to regard Burley as the authentic voice of the Tory take on the ceremony would be misleading and wrong. Any scan of right-of-centre opinion shows his views to be pretty marginal. Most of his political colleagues will despair not only at the crudity of Burley's comments but also his impolitic contribution to Tory brand retoxification.

Toby Young thought he had watched "a £27 million Party Political Broadcast for the Labour Party", because of the love letter to nurses, Great Ormond Street hospital and the NHS. After decades in which every Conservative minister has sought to argue that the NHS is not the party property of the Labour Party, there is an irony in right-of-centre commentators arguing that it is. The politics of the NHS reform Bill have trumped the early politics of Cameronism, where loving the NHS was going to be the foundation of the modernization project. (There was a warm generosity of spirit to James Cleverly's view that the show was a bit of a lefty tract, but no less enjoyable for all of that, but this does essentially accept those terms of the debate).

Other centre-right voices have offered a milder critique of the perceived politics of the show. Some of these were arguments about the balance between the traditional and the modern. Telegraph music critic Michael White enjoyed the spectacle but thought the traditions of literature, music and the Church were missing, asking "does none of this count for anything any more on the checklist of national identity?". Since Boyle began with Nimrod, Jerusalem and Shakespeare, and Emile Sands' moving Abide With Me tribute, it would make more sense to conclude that they do.

Yet these conservative depictions of the show as left-wing arguably misread the history of their own traditions. British Conservatism was, across the last century, probably the most electorally successful political force in western Europe. Its secret was to be conservative, but rarely reactionary. It has only rarely, more recently, advocated radical change, but it has very often showed a talent for living with it. 

Having believed that the loss of the aristocratic veto would end Empire, order and property, Conservatives surprised themselves in the ability of Baldwin and Macmillan to expand their electoral appeal. This is the conservatism of di Lampedusa's The Leopard, "if we want things to stay as we are, things will have to change”. And there is a lesson here for the progressive left too: those radical changes which endure are those which are ratified by acceptance across the political spectrum. 

To challenge Boyle's narrative of the twentieth century as a leftie tract is, in this sense, profoundly unconservative. It fails to acknowledge how the suffragettes and Windrush, and indeed the NHS, have become part of the furniture of the national consciousness. Sixty nine per cent of Britons say they are proud of the NHS as a symbol of Briton, which is 40% higher than the Labour vote in May 2010. Conservatives might particularly want to be grateful for the achievement of the suffragettes, given that they have secured more votes from women than men in almost every general Eeection since 1918. (Fortunately, Nick Clegg was not silly enough to challenge Danny Boyle's inclusion of the suffragettes as a partisan attack on the Asquith government of 1911!) Perhaps those Conservatives who recognise how the hangover of the Enoch legacy even now creates barriers to the party's ability to appeal to non-white Britons might regret that the sanctuary offered to the Ugandan Asians fleeing Idi Amin, a decision taken by Ted Heath and Robert Carr, was not included alongside the Windrush.

From the market liberal right, Phillip Davies of the IEA found the show impressive but parochial (which it was, though this was arguably its core strength) and worried too that the portrayal of the industrial revolution was "anti-business". Yet the point of those dystopic scenes of Pandemonium was surely that this is how our modern world was made. A "good thing/bad thing" debate about the age of the factory versus the unspoiled countryside, or about whether we would want to love in a world where the internet and mobile phone had never been invented misses the point.

But there is something problematic about the claim that the ceremony suggests that a new distinctively liberal-left patriotism is now in the ascendant, as Labour MP Tristram Hunt argued in the Observer, contrasting Boyle’s vision with that of the Jubilee.

But what a different history to that offered by the Thames two months ago, when the jubilee flotilla celebrated the Queen's public service but also codified a staid and nostalgic national identity.

It is true that the opening ceremony seemed to resonate for the Republican minority that June’s Jubilee left cold. And it is certainly possible to be pro-Olympics and anti-Jubilee – contrasting the meritocracy of athletic competition with the hereditary monarchy – or, indeed, pro-Jubilee and anti-Olympics, contrasting the extra cost of the Games and the lack of a need for Zil lanes. But most people responded positively to the meaning of both events for similar reasons. The local response to the Olympic torch’s procession reflected the spirit of the street parties the month before, reflecting a strong appetite to participate in collective experiences, as much as the particular occasions and causes which gave rise to them.

It is hard to make sense of a claim that Britain was a patriotically traditional country in early June (or, according to taste, an embarrassingly deferential Ruritarian theme-park) yet a patriotically progressive and modern country by the time it was lighting the Olympic torch at the end of July.  Arguing over different versions of patriotism will be part of the political debate between left and right, but neither has a strong claim to an "authentic" British identity which their opponents cannot engage with. Rather, the two major national events of 2012 suggest a rather British synthesis, rejecting the idea of a British identity which must choose between traditional and modern garb.  

This was also why Boyle’s British story resonated, where efforts like the Millennium Dome failed, because it portrayed modern Britain not as a break with our past, but as the consequence of a long history of adaptation and change that has made us the country that we have now become.

The Olympic Stadium is illuminated during the opening ceremony. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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Manchester attack: Theresa May condemns "warped and twisted" terrorist

The Prime Minister said the police were treating the explosion at the Manchester Arena as "an appalling terrorist attack".

At least 22 people are dead and around 59 have been injured, including children, after an explosion at a concert arena in Manchester that is being treated as a terrorist attack.

Police believe the attack was carried out by a single suicide bomber, who also died. However, the police have also announced the arrest of a 23-year-old man in South Manchester in connection with the attack.

Speaking before the announcement, chief constable Ian Hopkins said: "We have been treating this as a terrorist attack." The attacker was named by papers late on Tuesday as Salman Abedi, a British man of Libyan heritage. The source for this is US, rather than British, intelligence.

The victims were young concertgoers and their parents. Victims include the 18 year old Georgina Callander and the eight year old Saffie Rose Roussos.

The Prime Minister Theresa May earlier said that the country's "thoughts and prayers" were with those affected by the attack. 

She said: "It is now beyond doubt that the people of Manchester and of this country have fallen victim to a callous terrorist attack, an attack that targeted some of the youngest people in our society with cold calculation.

"This was among the worst terrorist incidents we have ever experienced in the United Kingdom, and although it is not the first time Manchester has suffered in this way, it is the worst attack the city has experienced and the worst ever to hit the north of England."

The blast occurred as an Ariana Grande concert was finishing at Manchester Arena on Monday night. According to May, the terrorist deliberately detonated his device as fans were leaving "to cause maximum carnage". 

May said the country will struggle to understand the "warped and twisted mind" that saw "a room packed with young children" as "an opportunity for carnage". 

"This attack stands out for its appalling, sickening cowardice deliberately targeting innocent and defenceless children," she said. "Young people who should have been enjoying one of the most memorable nights of their lives."

She thanked the emergency services "on behalf of the country" for their "utmost professionalism" and urged anyone with information about the attack to contact the police. 

"The general election campaign has been suspended. I will chair another meeting of Cobra later today."

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Ending her statement, she said: 

"At terrible moments like these it is customary for leaders politicians and others to condemn the perpetrators and declare that the terrorists will not win. But the fact we have been here before and we need to say this again does not make it any less true. For as so often while we experienced the worst of humanity in Manchester last night, we also saw the best.

"The cowardice of the attacker met the bravery of the emergency services and the people of Manchester. The attempt to divide us met countless acts of kindness that brought people together and in the days ahead those must be the things we remember. The images we hold in our minds should not be those of senseless slaughter, but the ordinary men and women who put their own concerns for safety aside and rushed to help."

Emergency services, including hundreds of police, worked overnight to recover the victims and secure the area, while families desperately searched for their children. The dead included children and teenagers. The injured are being treated at eight hospitals in Greater Manchester, and some are in critical condition. 

The so-called Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack, although this has not been independently verified, and the organisation has been slow to respond. 

Theresa May chaired a Cobra meeting on Tuesday morning and another in the afternoon. She said police believed they knew the identity of the perpretator, and were working "at speed" to establish whether he was part of a larger network. She met Manchester's chief constable, the Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, and members of the emergency services. A flat in a Manchester suburb has been raided. 

There were reports overnight of strangers offering their homes to concertgoers, and taxis taking people away from the scene of the explosion for free.

As the news broke, Grande, who had left the stage moments before the attack, tweeted that she felt "broken". 

Manchester's newly elected metro mayor, Andy Burnham, called the explosion "an evil act" and said: "After our darkest of nights Manchester is waking up to the most difficult of dawns."

He thanked the emergency services and the people of Manchester, and said "it will be business as usual as far as possible in our great city". 

Extra police, including armed officers, have been deployed on the streets of the city, and the area around the Manchester Arena remains cordoned off. Victoria Station is closed. 

The main political parties suspended campaigning for the general election for at least 24 hours after the news broke. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “I am horrified by the horrendous events in Manchester last night. My thoughts are with families and friends of those who have died and been injured.

“Today the whole country will grieve for the people who have lost their lives."

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “My thoughts are with the victims, their families and all those who have been affected by this barbaric attack in Manchester."

Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, a city which suffered a terrorist attack two months ago, tweeted that: "London stands with Manchester."

The attack happened while many Brits were sleeping, but international leaders have already been offering their condolences. Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, tweeted that: "Canadians are shocked by the news of the horrific attack in Manchester." The Parliament of Australia paused for a minute's silence in remembrance of the dead. 

 

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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