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.