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

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.