A year ago, this country felt like the best ever. Its faults and unfixable fissures seemed to dissolve the day the Olympics opened. Our athletes kept winning medals in perfect venues and sunny volunteers kept us smiling. The sign-off was more bubbly than the best champagne. Britain, thought by many insiders and outsiders to be otiose and, for all its braggadocio, glum and resentful, put on a show of spectacular togetherness, elan, alacrity, buoyancy and inclusive, positive nationalism. The winners took up their places in history. And the organisers gave us more than they promised. It rarely happens.
How Was it for Us? (edited by Mark Perryman), a new collection of essays, reflects on the euphoria and what has happened since. It includes columns by Suzanne Moore, Mark Steel and me, enthusing about the events and mood. Moore ends hers with a flourish: “Here we were, all in it together, just for a while. The Olympics felt and looked like political correctness gone mad. And guess what? We bloody loved it”. Yes, we did.
Much of what Britain projected then had an afterlife. Sports became cool for children, a dream they could follow. Teachers and local authority employees tell me kids now want to be sporting heroes and not just to be on Big Brother or The X Factor. With cutbacks on resources they will not find it much easier than before the Olympics, but the aspiration is real.
Back in 1701, Daniel Defoe wrote a satirical poem, A Trueborn Englishman. In the preamble he averred: “Had we been an unmix’d nation, I am of the opinion that it had been to our disadvantage. Those nations that are most mix’d are the best and have the least of barbarism and brutality among them.” Maybe he overstated the case. Mixing brings clashes and lack of ease, too. But in spite of that and the sour mutterings of neo-Powellite commentators and politicians, the games vindicated Defoe.
However, some sceptics didn’t join the pizzazz then and were wary. They saw a man-made illusion, like the magician Dynamo’s tricks, only writ large. The author Eliane Glaser believes that the Olympics were escapism and also used “to bolster Coalition austerity”, to persuade Britons things were better than they were or would be after the eyes of the world had moved away. It’s no longer possible to dismiss such cynicism or to ignore the doubts now loitering in the corners of my own mind.
That nation celebrated in the opening ceremony by Danny Boyle is dying. There he was joyfully reminding global spectators of working-class courage and the fight for rights – the Tolpuddle Martyrs and Jarrow Marchers, oh weren’t they truly heroic? Yes, they truly were. And here we are today allowing the state to neuter trade unionists and workers’ basic rights. Most public sector workers (not MPs) are scared into accepting any deal. Power is firmly in the hands of right-wingers, determined to euthanise all left politics and ideals. The BBC Trust, led by the Tory Chris Patten, warns in a report about left-wing bias in the corporation. So presenters Andrew Neil, David Dimbleby, John Humphrys, Jeremy Clarkson and favourite panellists Melanie Phillips, Claire Fox, Cristina Odone, neo-con Douglas Murray must all be damned clever closet Marxists. Trolls and influential bloggers viciously attack dissenters from the established creed.
As poverty grows, fabulously inventive ways are found to deny that truth and criminalise the poor. George Osborne admitted last week that he had never been to a food bank, nor, I expect, to any yucky, deprived estates. The Queen – the star of the opening ceremony – and her clan also avoid such places, while playing up the fantasy of past and present greatness .
Boyle’s beloved NHS is being allowed to fall apart so it can be privatised. Jeremy Hunt is a loyal friend to the private sector whichever department he runs. Last week he abandoned plans for plain-packaged cigarettes and minimum prices for alcohol.
Race relations on display last summer were not a reverie or fancy. People do happily cross racial, ethnic and religious boundaries in their daily lives, borrow, learn, love, adapt creatively and expand their cultural horizons. But today many of us feel the burn of racism on our skins, as toxic debates on immigration and asylum rage on and on. Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis won the moment but can’t douse those fires, fanned now by our Government. The Lib Dems’ Sarah Teather, last week, bravely slammed her own side for sustaining these bonfires of hatred. Doreen Lawrence and Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti were Olympic flag bearers. Lawrence now has just learnt of police dirty tricks against her family while our nation operates illiberal secret courts and threatens to dump human rights treaties.
So what was it all for, what was it all about? I shall not forget those weeks when London was even more beautiful, energetic and joyous than usual. But, looking at the state we’re in, it does seem we were suckers to fall for the story we were told – brilliant and dazzling, but not real. Never mind, a royal baby is on the way, another big party, another big distraction.