If the Olympics are all about national projection and image-making, then London 2012 has surely shattered one remaining stereotype about the Brits. We are not uptight purveyors of the stiff upper lip. We haven't been for years – indeed probably not since the death of Diana – but this hasn't stopped Americans and others as portraying us as such.
Our media is even more highly strung than our national character. Two weeks ago these Olympics were being denounced as chaos and fiasco. Suddenly, in the twinkle of Danny Boyle's eye, the coverage has shifted, culminating in ululations of joy in the Saturday and Sunday papers.
Forget the lurches. The truth is, inevitably, somewhere in between. These Olympics are showing the best and worst of Britain. The global financial model that has brought unparalleled wealth for some, and brought economies to their knees and social divisions to the fore, is on display everywhere in and around the Olympic village. The juxtaposition of the huge public interest, in which many have struggled to find tickets even at their inflated prices, and the rows of unoccupied places in which company executives cannot be bothered to turn up for their freebies, has served as an important symbol of a broader malaise.
And yet the positives have so far hugely outweighed the negatives. The Opening Ceremony on Friday night displayed contemporary Britain at its best – inventive, ambitious, irreverent, diverse and just a bit bonkers.
Initially the show reminded me of the sunny-upland-moment of 1997 and the New Labour meets Cool Britannia victory, which would eventually turn so sour. The optimism of 15 years ago was accompanied by a hubris that gave way to economic and military recklessness.
The 2012 variant was far more self-deprecating. For sure the celebrities played their part, but almost as walk-on parts to the dancing, the glam rock and the occasional shots of a scowling Queen. The political intent of some of the sections was not hard to decipher. The praise for the National Health Service would have infuriated those of Tea Party persuasion who see it as a Communist construct. It will have frustrated the more moderate Conservatives who would like the state system gradually dismantled.
The voluntarism could be read in several ways. On the one it was a celebration of the socialist ideal of collective endeavour rather than financial reward. It could also be read as a vindication of David Cameron's Big Society, in which teenage athletes from the East End rub shoulders with renowned classical conductors and with hospital nurses.
So will any of this last? Fast forward to the end of October when the clocks move back, the long nights set in and the summer-that-wasn't disappears. The economy will hover between stagnation and recession; spending cuts will bite harder than ever, the bankers will continue their rapacious ways with blithe indifference to the rest of society. Meanwhile, many of the factors that exploded with the riots of August 2011 will remain unresolved, indeed have possibly sharpened.
I hope I am wrong; I hope my Jeremiah instincts prove unfounded and that something sustainable will emerge from these two weeks of celebration (followed, hopefully, by similar enthusiasm for the Paralympics at the end of August).
Beyond sentiment and wishful thinking where is the evidence that the Olympic spirit will be sustained in more normal times? There are some threads of hope. Our eccentricity and originality has a successful outlet through our creative industries. Apart from the odd right-wing Tory backbencher, it seems that most Britons are increasingly comfortable with social and demographic diversity.
All the while, however, economic inequality continues to sharpen. The Coalition government's attempts to address greed and the under-regulation of financial services and executive pay are proving no more successful or sincere than its Labour predecessor's. Unless or until our body politic and our public can find a way of reconciling the positive impulses of ambition and success, with a requirement to act responsibly to the rest of the society, then nothing will change.
This is the opportunity presented by the Olympics, where individual excellence is celebrated within the context of a broader purpose. But how do you achieve that reconciliation of these separate impulses? Underlying that question may be the key to the economic re-balancing that politicians talk about but have so far failed to identify in concrete terms. This is what has so frightened the Labour party since the mid-1980s. From that point it saw any form of meaningful intervention as political suicide, failing to appreciate that society has always been able to distinguish between success and avarice, between achievement and entitlement.
I am looking forward to going to three or four events, to learn about the skills of trampolining, diving, canoe sprinting and, yes, beach volleyball. I am looking forward to watching the crowds, and soaking up the cacophony of sound and pink and purple signposts. It will provide a small fix, a brief moment of escapism. There has been much discussion about the Olympic legacy; indeed there are more than one quangos established to ensure that the hugely expensive construction projects of the past seven years do not go to waste, as has so often been the case with previous games. It is vital that the stadiums, the Olympic park and the landscaping are put to good use.
The other form of legacy is harder to measure. To what degree will the Olympics leave a lasting impression on our minds? What will the thousands who have given up their time have to show for their efforts in, say, six months' time? I am not talking about financial recompense but something far more valuable. To what degree will they feel they have played their part not just in putting on a great festival but in changing their country for the better? Or will they, come November, be continuing to scrimp and save, and pay their taxes, while others make a mockery of the system? I fear the Olympics will slip out of our consciousness as quickly as they entered it. I hope I'm proven wrong.Reuse content