We’re the island nation which birthed the Industrial Revolution, powered by our ingenuity but also by the strength of British workers. Over centuries, the people of the United Kingdom have banded together to fight for the vote, against unemployment, and for workers’ rights and fair pay; for institutions such as the NHS, and against institutional bigotry in the Met Police.
We had an empire, yes – but many of those who lived in it came to make this island their home, playing a huge role in those progressive movements and in turning Britain into the cultural powerhouse it is today. Britain’s history is in its people, its solidarity, and its openness. We achieve more by working together.
That was the unashamedly leftist – and just as importantly, popular – vision of Britain’s national story on show in Danny Boyle’s 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. And it was attacked as such at the time: Tory MP Adrian Burley, then only recently at the centre of a row involving a Nazi-themed stag party, complained that the ceremony was “the most leftie opening ceremony ever seen – more than Beijing, the capital of a communist state”. Meanwhile the Daily Mail fulminated against its “Marxist propaganda“. “Once, Boris,” wrote Rod Liddle in the Spectator, “you would have hated this show.”
Perhaps the opening ceremony threw the right because it was so unusual: the left isn’t often particularly good at talking about its politics in terms of national stories. We often slip into offering up lists of policies, assuming that if the public agrees with us that the status quo is bad, the prospect of change will be enough. What’s more, many on the left would admit we don’t feel comfortable with how close talk of national pride gets to things like nationalism.
The big theory of psychology professor Drew Westen’s book The Political Brain is that this is why the right is so often triumphant at the ballot box: it offers clear, compelling narratives about the nation that implicitly affirm its politics, while the left often goes to the public with laundry-list campaigns lacking any broader story. When it comes to national stories, the left and right “have been playing on vastly uneven fields” for decades. And so, you’d think, a ready-made and widely seen leftist retelling of our national narrative, such as Boyle’s opening ceremony, would be gold dust for socialists.
But bafflingly, in recent years a cottage industry has emerged, dedicated to trashing the opening ceremony despite its unabashedly left-wing vision. This faction of the online left paint it as a glossy centrist vision heralded only by those keen to airbrush out the many things wrong with the UK before 2016 – the very things that led to our vote to leave the European Union.
To be sure, seeing 2012 bewailed as a halcyon time of national unity now lost can be infuriating, if you remember the crushing austerity being enacted by the Coalition at the time. And this attitude can often go hand-in-hand with a tone-deafness to the games’ less-heralded legacies – such as the compulsory purchases that drove out many East End residents, and the gentrification that made it unaffordable for many to return.
And of course the ceremony glossed over the less savoury elements of our national history. Frankly, find me a national story that doesn’t; it’s telling that the only country with a full warts and all account of its national story had to lose two world wars to prompt it.
But dismissing the whole thing because of these objections is self-defeating. The dominance of the right-wing version of Britain’s national story, repeated day-in day-out by our best-selling papers and commentators across left and right, is the fuel that has driven us to a point where a no-deal Brexit is a live prospect, and that an exhausted government, nine years deep into austerity, could realistically go to the public pledging food and medicine shortages yet still win a general election.
Why? Because no deal fits its national narrative. We’re the proud, plucky little island that’s resisted invasion for a thousand years, established parliamentary sovereignty and the Industrial Revolution, and took over the world. We faced off against Hitler alone, and while we might not be what we once were, we can withstand anything and achieve anything if we put our minds to it. We kept a stiff upper lip against a continental menace in the face of rationing and the Blitz – surely we can tough out a few months of lorry jams and food shortages against another?
You don’t need to know much history to see that this version of Britain’s national story isn’t completely accurate. But it doesn’t matter. It’s emotive, resonant, and flattering. And you can’t beat a compelling story with nitpicking: you need another story.
So given the 2012 opening ceremony was overwhelmingly popular, watched by more of the British public than almost anything else in the last 50 years, and told a national story entirely fitting with a left-wing vision of society and of what our country can be, why not embrace it? More to the point – why spend so much time trashing it?
Tyron Wilson is a comms specialist and editor at The Social Review, and tweets at @TyronWilson