Over the past several generations we have been a nation obsessed with "who we are". Countless books and television series have appeared to address the question. Our individual obsession with identity continues with the new series of Who Do You Think You Are? starting on the BBC on Wednesday.
But perhaps the Olympics more than any other event for a generation – the death of Diana being the last such moment – has raised the question, and writ in larger letters than ever before. And for once, unlike with Diana, I think we truly have some answers, and those answers are very encouraging, and somewhat surprising.
There is a sense in which it is impossible to say what a nation "is" any more than it is possible to say who a person "is". Both polity and individual are a fleeting, shifting mass of influences, changes, and cross-currents, both historical and contemporary. Both are about hopes and fears as much as facts, and both feature widely contradictory poles hard to reconcile.
A year ago, we were reeling under the impact of the riots. Only last week, a gang of youths was imprisoned for their attack on a restaurant in Notting Hill, west London. Put that together with our long-standing economic and political struggles, the spotlights on corruption among the police, the financial sector, the press and the politicians, and we have, until the past few weeks, not had much to celebrate about ourselves.
But perhaps this is because we have been, characteristically, looking in the wrong place. Critically minded as a society, in a way that those previous Olympiads, the Chinese, were not, we have always picked ourselves apart to find the flaws. It's a healthy instinct, but perhaps we have for too long eschewed the equally healthy counter-instinct – to celebrate who we are.
Yes, we've applauded ourselves through the Queen's Jubilee, but this is a parading of an institution, not a nation of people. And our occasional sporting successes in, say, cricket or rugby have been marginal and sectional. The Olympics have been different. It is truly a theatre of the citizens, not the subjects, of the UK and we have surprised ourselves in many different ways.
We have discovered that we can make thing work: even Swiss newspapers have admired our clockwork efficiency. We have discovered that we are deeply, well, nice. This is a national trait that was identified by Orwell who wrote that "the gentleness of the English civilisation is perhaps its most marked characteristic". This was obvious on dozens of occasions but captured most memorably for me in the down-to-earth demeanour of the cyclist Laura Trott and a few days ago, boxing star Nicola Adams saying, bathetically, of her gold medal: "It made my day." Compare and contrast with Usain Bolt's "I am now a living legend."
Another marked characteristic of our triumphant athletes was the time they spent thanking their coaches, the teams, the public and the volunteers. For this, more than anything else, was a collective Games, appealing to our collective, unitary consciousness.
I would now joyfully include the Scots and the Welsh in this definition of national personality, because the Games also brought home something else that has lately become counter-intuitive: that we are, truly, a United Kingdom, not just a drifting set of disparate nations making their own way.
It is a step backwards for Scottish independence, I suspect, not least because English nationalists like me have had the wind knocked, happily, out of their sails. More than any time I can remember, I feel British.
We had forgotten how highly we valued the collective in our society. The celebration of the NHS in the opening ceremony, the tens of thousands of volunteers coming together, the brilliant coverage by the BBC, the Games itself, all served to tell us that we are connected to one another, and we like it that way.
What a contrast to that was the mean-spirited corporate sponsors with their insistence that we eat their scummy chips and eat in their crappy restaurants in what was for me one of the few black spots of the Olympics, the Olympic Park itself, soulless as a car park, and solely devoted to getting a fast buck out of trapped punters, in return for atrocious, badly prepared food, inefficiently delivered. There was nowhere to shelter if it rained – no profit in that – and no objects of beauty or wonder apart from a small park and the Kapoor tower.
But at least the tower was a pointer towards another forgotten or somewhat ignored characteristic among the British – our remarkable creativity, as evidenced in Danny Boyle's rightly praised opening ceremony. Our high standing as a creative force in the world is often forgotten in the self-flagellation over our economic and political failures, but it is remarkable for such a small country, standing head to head with the mighty US in terms of innovation and imagination.
The Games showed us to be a nation – again, surprisingly – at ease with itself. Our multicultural character felt very natural and unforced now, deeply and uncontroversially part of who we are. And this was expressed in joy and happiness that truly took foreign observers aback. One reporter on USA Today reported that Britain was "the happiest place on earth". This was reflected in almost all of the foreign coverage, apart from, of course, the French, whose sour-grapes attitude was a precise example of what not to follow.
This may be the point to stop, pause, and say: "Let's not get carried away", which would be a very British reaction and a valid one. But on the other hand, I think we are all deeply tired of feeling bad, of listening to the news every day and finding that we're going to hell. To paraphrase and invert the Peter Finch/Howard Beale prophet character in the movie Network: "We're glad as hell and we're not going to take it any more...".
Are we deluded? No. We have just started to remember a lot of things we have forgotten about ourselves. Dennis Potter once wrote: "A writer helps to show you things you knew but didn't know you knew." The same applies to the Olympics.
On the other hand, we have not remembered, but discovered, that we are, most remarkably of all, capable of stunning success in the sporting field.
Nations shift about in their self-perception all the time, us more than most nations. But let me bring some objective facts into it.
The first Olympics I can remember was in 1972, the year of the Munich massacres. In those games we won a total of 18 medals. So far, as I write, this time, we have won 60. That is not a matter of interpretation, but of fact.
In a month's time, the Olympics may be forgotten to some extent, like any occasion in an individual's life. But events leave traces, mark changes.
For me, the Olympics feels like a turning point, a moment in which for the first time since our decline from empire, we felt genuinely self-confident. For the first time I can remember, we like ourselves.
We're surprised that we like ourselves, but we like liking ourselves too. And I don't think we're going back to the old self-hating people we thought we were a few weeks ago in very much of a hurry.
Today, we no longer see ourselves as base metal. We believe now that we can be golden – and with that sort of belief, our potential as a nation is unlimited.Reuse content