John Kampfner: If this feeling lasts, we can dare to hope of a true legacy

The positives have so far hugely outweighed the negatives. The optimism was self-deprecating


I f 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.

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 our healthcare system 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 hand 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, and that something sustainable will emerge from these two weeks of celebration (followed, one hopes, 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 '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 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; more than one quango has been established to ensure that the construction projects of the past seven years do not go to waste. 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. But I hope I'm proven wrong.


React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Facebook lights up the London Eye with the nation's general election conversations.The London Eye showed the top five most discussed political topics on Facebook. (Colours: Economy - white; Health - purple; Tax - yellow; Europe and Immigration - blue; Crime - red) in London  

Election 2015: Why each party's share of the vote could really matter

Matt Dathan

How the French stay so slim while we British balloon can’t ever be reconciled

Rosie Millard
General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'