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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Why the left shouldn’t abandon freedom of movement

Jeremy Corbyn is right to avoid making promises on immigration. 

Jeremy Corbyn was on the BBC’s Today programme yesterday morning, answering questions about policy ahead of his party conference speech.

The main line of questioning was on immigration, something Corbyn and his team have had to think hard about in recent months.

For over a decade, all parties have been trying to marry policy with popular opinion on Britain’s migrants. Brexit has exacerbated this dilemma, what with the UK’s participation in freedom of movement teetering on the rim of the dustbin of history.

The problem is a familiar one. Immigration is generally a good thing, but in the eyes of the majority of voters – and in reality in certain pockets of the country – it doesn’t look that way. But for a party seen as “soft” on immigration, pandering to the harder line of rhetoric from its opponents merely reinforces the perception that there is a big problem – and validates its opponents’ policies.

The Labour leader has angered some in his party by insisting he won’t be drawn into making “false promises” on immigration numbers. This is the right decision. The Tories’ targets are arbitrary, set them up to fail, and do little to quell public dissatisfaction with the number of migrants.

An inaccurate government headcount, whether it’s successfully brought down or not, doesn’t translate onto your street, or local schools, or queue at the doctor’s surgery – just as a politician’s reassurance about the positive net contribution from migrants doesn’t. The macro doesn’t satisfy the micro.

And Corbyn calling for a cap would not only be unconvincing to voters, but a betrayal of his supporters, who have projected their liberal politics onto him and love it when he champions migrants. Corbyn himself has never really been into free movement; he’s unconvinced by the benefits of the single market. Of course he is. He’s a eurosceptic, and a eurosceptic who is suspicious of capitalism, to boot.

But having a leader of a mainstream party sticking up for migrants is an important thing; someone’s got to make the positive case, and it’s not like Corbyn’s one to compromise for votes anyway. Particularly as he builds his whole reputation on being a “man of principle” and a “real alternative”.

Rather than “false promises”, Corbyn’s given us a number of false problems instead. He speaks about the effect of migration in terms of depressed wages and pressure on public services. If he were in government, he would reintroduce a “migrant impact fund” (amount unspecified) to make up for these.

The first problem with this is that Corbyn knows as well as Boris Johnson and Theresa May and George Osborne and Ed Miliband and Tony Blair and Caroline Lucas and everyone else who’s attempted to make policy on this does that, actually, migrants overwhelmingly come here to work. Indeed, he underlined his stance against scapegoating migrants in a passionate passage of his speech yesterday. They don’t “take” people’s jobs, and it is not the number of them that brings down wages or drives up rents.

Where wages are kept lower than the national average by the presence of migrant workers, you will find numerous agencies that pay them less than the minimum wage, fail to give them proper contracts, and often advertise jobs solely overseas. Where you find these agencies, you find businesses happy to turn a blind eye to their recruitment and employment practices.

Where rents are driven up higher than the local average by the presence of migrant workers, you will find landlords who are happy to make money from people willing to live ten to a house, share bedrooms and have a poor quality of life.

Boston – the town in Britain with the highest proportion of EU migrants after London – is a textbook study of this. A high level of workers is needed for agricultural and factory labour. They aren’t stealing people’s jobs, and unemployment is relatively low. But those who benefit financially from their presence, and take advantage, are the ones who cause the consequent negative social and economic conditions in the town. Conditions that led it to voting higher than anywhere else for Brexit.

So Corbyn’s “migrant impact fund” is a nebulous fix to a false problem that not even he believes in. Even the name of it sends the wrong message, making migration sound like a spate of bad flooding, or noise pollution.

It’s our light-touch enforcement of employment law, and murky regulation of exploitative agencies that slip through its net, which need government money and attention. Perhaps “shark impact fund” would be a better name for Corbyn’s fix-all pot of gold.

Giving councils extra funds for public services is priced into Labour policy already (if the party truly is anti-austerity) – and should not now be linked to a negative idea of migration in a tacked-on attempt to to make something palatable for voters. It’s a bit like Ed Miliband’s “Controls on Immigration” mug. Simply giving something a new name, or stamping on a motto, doesn’t wash with voters.

Those who argue that the country has voted against free movement, and we should accept it, that may be so. But it’ll do the Labour party little good campaigning to get rid of it. Once it’s gone, and we’ve replaced it with some kind of points-based system, places with high levels of migration will still have high levels of migration – because those are the places where jobs need filling. It’ll either be EU migrants who manage to stick around, or other immigrants drafted in out of necessity having been assessed under a points-based system. If investment in these areas isn’t ramped up, residents will still feel left behind, and will still see migrants around them as the cause.

So what about the many pro-Brexit areas where there is a very low number of immigrants? This really is irrelevant. The problem in these areas is the problem the country over: lack of funds. Unless you invest, people will remain unsatisfied. And if people remain unsatisfied, they will continue to look for something to blame. Unfortunately, Corbyn is joining the legions of politicians who are handing them that easy target. And he is least likely to see the electoral benefit of it.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.