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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage