Ten years ago this week the London Olympics drew to a triumphant close, and it was not just the UK’s record haul of 69 medals that made those games such a special moment in our national life.
They brought the entire country together – socially, politically and in every other way. Remember how communities rich and poor, urban and rural, north and south, turned out in huge numbers merely to greet the Olympic torch?
We celebrated the diversity of our athletes. An army of smiling volunteers welcomed visitors from across the globe to a spotless, vibrant, almost crime-free London. The world marvelled at the spectacular stadium and arenas, the beautiful settings and the clockwork precision with which the games were run.
We took pride in their success – not a brash, boastful pride but a quiet, self-effacing pride that did not stop us making fun of ourselves. Remember the Queen jumping from the helicopter, and Simon Rattle conducting Mr Bean, at the opening ceremony? Remember a certain Boris Johnson, then London’s liberal-minded mayor, gaily waving little Union Jacks while marooned on a zip wire?
Not everything was perfect. The threat of Islamist terrorism hung over the games, though mercifully it never materialised. George Osborne’s austerity programme had begun to bite, and he was roundly booed when he appeared at the Paralympics. But the London Games brought out the very best of Britain. They generated joy. They made us feel good about ourselves. They enhanced our global stature.
A decade on, it is almost painful to remember those golden days, for they serve as a reminder of just how far and how fast Britain has fallen.
[See also: Britain’s decline resembles the fall of Rome]
Today we are a country that has lost its way – divided, dispirited, dysfunctional and shorn of common purpose. We are a diminished Britain, regarded with a mixture of pity, bewilderment and scorn by much of the rest of the world. We are a broken Britain whose economy and public services are perilously close to collapse. By almost any measure – living standards, economic growth, physical and mental health, life expectancy, environmental cleanliness, homelessness, happiness – we are considerably worse off now than a decade ago.
Our political system no longer works (we’re about to get our fourth prime minister in six years). Standards in public life have plummeted (to the point where a British prime minister and dozens of his closest officials were fined for breaking the law, but refused to resign). Public discourse is toxic. Patriotism has been replaced by an ugly, jingoistic nationalism. The Union is fraying.
Collectively, though not individually, we have become a cruel and nasty country that reneges on solemn international agreements, picks needless fights with our former friends and allies in Europe, and seeks to deport desperate asylum seekers to one of Africa’s most authoritarian states. We have pulled up the proverbial drawbridge, and the pride that millions of Britons felt for their country in 2012 has been replaced by a profound sense of embarrassment and shame.
Two cataclysmic global events – the Covid-19 pandemic and Ukraine war – have undoubtedly accelerated Britain’s decline, but the rot had begun long before.
David Cameron, having previously urged his Conservative colleagues to stop “banging on about Europe”, capitulated to pressure from Nigel Farage in 2016 and called a deeply divisive referendum on EU membership for which there was minimal public clamour.
Labour lost its senses and elected the almost comically extreme and unelectable Jeremy Corbyn as its leader.
Britain’s most colourful politician, the same Boris Johnson who had served as the Olympics’ chief merrymaker, duped Britain into voting to leave the EU with a scandalously mendacious campaign. Cameron resigned. Theresa May paid the price for seeking a soft Brexit. Johnson replaced her and proved the most destructive prime minister in living memory.
In hock to the party’s right-wing zealots, he secured the hardest possible Brexit by purging the parliamentary party of Remainers, and negotiating a Northern Ireland protocol that he had no intention of honouring.
Johnson’s Brexit has caused great damage to Britain’s economy, but his style of government – or misgovernment – was equally damaging.
In place of any considered long-term strategy he offered slogans and populist gimmicks designed merely to grab the next day’s headlines. Instead of seeking to reunite the country, he set out to identify wedge issues and foment division. He made promises he could never keep. He waged culture wars to divert his base. He stuffed his cabinet with lacklustre loyalists at the expense of talent. He sought to neuter those supposedly independent institutions he could not control. He broke the law. He practised naked cronyism. He protected the nefarious. He lied, dissembled and obfuscated. He avoided accountability, and blamed everyone else as the country crumbled.
Johnson’s legacy is evident in the race to succeed him. There is no correction going on, no reversion to the status quo ante, now he has finally been forced to resign in disgrace. The Conservative Party has become the Cake-ist Party. Egged on by big, powerful newspapers that have abrogated their duty to hold the powerful to account, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak pander shamelessly to the party members who must choose between them.
Truss especially, and Sunak increasingly, promise instant gratification. They offer fantastical, painless solutions to the country’s woes. They offer tax cuts that will magically pay for themselves, civil service reductions that will leave essential services unscathed, bonfires of EU regulations that will miraculously unleash Britain’s coiled potential and finally transport the country to those sunlit uplands. They offer wars on “wokery” even as the cost-of-living crisis deepens, the land is seized by drought and the harsh realities of climate change become undeniable.
Neither offers anything vaguely resembling a long-term vision for restoring Britain’s fortunes. Neither dares say anything unpopular with the Tory right. Neither talks of the need for compromise, or healing the country’s divisions. Neither dares speak inconvenient truths. Neither dares acknowledge the costs of Brexit, or the pressing need to make peace with Brussels. Neither dares talk of the need for sacrifices.
All of which means that Britain has yet to hit the bottom. A decade after the euphoria of the London Olympics, we face a winter of deep recession, soaring inflation, widespread poverty, unaffordable energy, industrial strife, blackouts, civil disobedience and an overwhelmed NHS.
We face a winter as bad, or worse, than the infamous Winter of Discontent of 1978-9. We face a winter when our useless, contemptible government will struggle to fulfil even its most basic duty, which is to keep its citizens warm and fed.