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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 Most of the processors have withdrawn the price cuts they announced under heavy public pressure, but they’ll be back.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.


Photo: Getty Images
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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 50p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.