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Does the Britain of Danny Boyle's opening ceremony exist?

Government cuts threaten the very icons the ceremony celebrated.

Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony was, it has to be said, a resounding success. But to what extent do the symbols of Britain chosen by Boyle reflect the political realities of today? How many of the icons of Britishness used by Boyle in the opening ceremony are being severely damaged by the aggressively neoliberal policies pursued by our current government? Were we cheering along a chimeric illusion of Britain, sold to us by an organisation that uses sport and the Olympic brand to mask its alarmingly neoliberal tendencies?

Take those cows, doing their bit for the country by standing and looking charmingly picturesque in a green and pleasant field. Away from Stratford, dairy farmers have been forced to blockade the premises of milk processors in an attempt to demand a fair price for a pint of milk. Most of the processors have withdrawn the price cuts they announced under heavy public pressure, but they’ll be back. Meanwhile, the government stands by and leaves the farmers to face the market. Without agricultural subsidies being better targeted away from giant firms towards small independent farmers, how long will that countryside stay looking as bucolic as Danny sees it?

Saying that, there might be a glimmer of hope for those farmers set to lose their farms - the ones that aren’t driven to extreme measures, with high suicide rates reported in the farming community. With planning regulations being decimated to aid (big) business - particularly those mega-developers doing so well out of the practically criminal sale of the Olympic Village - they’ll be able to sell their family farms for development, with no need for anyone to worry about the damage unchecked construction will do to our verdant pastures.

The various armed forces got a big cheer - we must hope it tides them over as the defence cuts starts to bite, leaving thousands of young combat veterans with insufficient rehabilitation to civilian life to go back into the community and join the queues at the Jobcentre. Heaven forbid any of those veterans came back from abroad with any lasting injury, with little money and little empathy available for the long-term disabled. And will those discharged who hail from Commonwealth countries get to stay in the UK? The fantastic and diverse people of the Britain of the Ceremony is hardly done any favours by the curbs on immigration. How welcome would those who came on the Windrush be today? Sorry, not unless you’re paying to study or highly trained - we have a quota.

I personally would not trade Boyle’s spectacle of the NHS, so beloved by left-wing critics, for the real thing. 800 nurses danced in the Ceremony - one for every 70 at risk under coalition spending plans. And how happy are those smiling nurses going to be when they get back to work? With 44 per cent of nurses looking to leave their jobs, job satisfaction for British nurses is almost the worst in Europe, second only to Greece.

I didn’t watch the opening ceremony live - as the winged cyclists swept round the stadium, I was outside, narrowly avoiding being arrested for the heinous crime of joining a mass bike ride which went north of the river. Critical Mass, which has been running peacefully in London for 18 years, was considered too much of a threat to our heavily militarised corporate Olympics to go ahead, criminalising 182 cyclists whose bail conditions ban them from cycling in the Borough of Newham for the duration of the Games. On the subject of civil liberties, how did Tim Berners-Lee, at the heart of Boyle’s Ceremony, feel about the government’s recent bid to monitor personal internet use? Safe to say that as a famous advocate for a free and open internet, he hated it.

There was, of course, one British icon in the ceremony who survived the cuts. If only they’d slash the vast subsidy we hand over to the Queen - the only British symbol who doesn’t seem to be suffering at the hands of the coalition. The Britain of the Opening Ceremony was truly one which people around the country feel a deep connection to - so why are Cameron and co so desperately trying to destroy it? While commentators like Aidan Burley may have rubbished the ceremony, they appear to be getting their way policy-wise - if the vision of Britain they got on Friday wasn't one they wanted to see, it seems likely that the Britain of the history taught in our schools and the Britain that immigrants are required to internalise soon will be. Come on Dave and Nick - give us the Britain we want.


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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.