Should we have been so surprised that the Games were a success?

The trail of clues was there if you wanted to notice.

Britain surprised itself with its happy self-confidence during the London 2012 Olympics - the most inclusive celebration of who we are that anybody can remember. Hosting the world meant telling it a story – and so we had to decide what we wanted to say, and to believe, about ourselves. Our hopes and fears jostled for supremacy, in a year mixing economic anxiety with great national events. Yet, the nearer that the moment came, those often dominant national narratives of British decline – that ours is a broken society, heading towards the break-up of Britain, as our unhappy, overcrowded island goes to hell in a handcart – felt just a little too miserable to fit the bill. 

Still, the commentarian jury ummed and erred to the eve of the Games. Was Britain capable of putting the Games on without transport and security disasters? Would anybody outside London give a damn if they did? A would-be American President, who had hosted a B list Olympics somewhere in Utah was, naturally, savaged for voicing similar concerns.

Yet, all along, something else had been bubbling up from below. The trail of clues had been there if you had wanted to notice. There had been the (surprisingly) enthusiastic public participation in June’s Jubilee festivities, then the (surprisingly) large crowds who had greeted the Olympic flame hundreds of miles from London, the (surprising) number of applicants to be among tens of thousands of volunteers, and the (surprisingly) strong desire to say “I was there” which saw every ticket for handball, taekwondo and Greco-Roman wrestling eagerly snapped up. There were even thousands of Union Jacks being waved in Paris as an Englishman in a yellow jersey rode his bicycle up the Champs Elysees to clinch the Tour de France, generously sharing the pre-Olympic spirit with the would-be hosts who were pipped at the post. Still we wondered whether people really wanted to embrace the Olympics. 

It began with the (gobsmackingly) brilliant opening ceremony, watched with awe by a (surprisingly) massive audience of 27 million, as Danny Boyle responded to the scale of Beijing’s spectacle with our British celebration of democratic dissonance, never afraid to mildly baffle the global audience as we used the moment to have that conversation, by ourselves, about ourselves and for ourselves, that we have really meant to get around to for many years. 

Then, the sport. We talk about our tradition of heroic sporting failure, though Team GB had done (surprisingly) much better in Beijing four years before, and English cricketers tending to beat the Australians too. But nobody expected Britain to be quite this (surprisingly) good at sport, so that it sometimes seemed that you could barely risk putting the kettle on without missing the next athletics or cycling gold medal.

67% of the British public have been surprised by how much Britain brought us together. But do spare a thought for the miserabilists. Those who made a point of getting out of the country to avoid the whole Olympic nightmare have returned to a country they struggle to recognise. They are keeping their heads down through the popular Paralympics and the Victory Parade, and expect to get their country back by October. Perhaps the spirit of 2012 will be a mirage, never to be repeated until, several decades from now, a big Royal celebration and a great sporting event happen to coincide again. But there is a public appetite.

So let’s stop talking as if we need to “reclaim the flag” from the extreme fringe, when the inclusive meaning of the Union Jack today is better represented in children’s face-paint than flailing neo-fascism. Let’s remember that everybody British has more than one flag – and fly Saltires, Welsh Dragons and St George’s Crosses too. And let’s treat Humphrey Keeper’s singing in the opening moments of the opening ceremony as the cultural moment that “Jerusalem” became the English anthem that it has been missing – and ask the sports’ governing bodies to catch up.

Let’s welcome new citizens with what we all want to share. Why not have a day each year when 18 year olds and new Britons from overseas come together in town halls to celebrate becoming citizens. It could give the rest of us a chance, too, to “renew” vows to our country that we have never got to make in person.

Let’s treasure the BBC, the institution which can still, in this age of the Ipod and Ipad, binds tens of millions of us into national moments that we share. And let’s seek from it a real public service commitment to proactively building audiences for women’s sport, so it is not just in prime-time once every four years, but can help schools and sports clubs to inspire our daughters too with sporting heroines to emulate. So let’s bring back Grandstand on Saturdays (and Superstars too).

And let’s talk frankly about every difficult issues our societies face, from immigration to opportunity for the next generation. But we need never again take seriously anybody who produces miserabilist polemics declaring Britain a “third world country”. 

We liked being the people that we were this Olympic year. For it to change our society for good would be an unexpected surprise. But if we really wanted it too, it could.

Sunder Katwala is the director of British Future.

British Future's new report How 2012 should boost Britain is published today.

Fireworks light up the sky above the arena during the closing ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.