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.

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
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Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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