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An Olympic Cynic On Why Britain Won More Than Medals
Luke Turner , August 12th, 2012 07:41

Olympic cynic Luke Turner was largely won over by the achievements of the London Games. Here he argues that, despite all the still-extant reservations about how the Olympics are run, the true legacy ought not be Team GB's bling, but a Coalition-proof sense of our National identity

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One's own hat is often the most delightful dish. Before the Olympics began, I was about as voiciferous a naysayer against the games as you could be. A life-long sporting inability, complete disinterest in these tedious athletes with their monochrome lives of training, PB obsessions and appalling choices and inane prattling every time one is invited on Desert Island Discs had me, like many, less than enthusiastic about the summer of sports promised by London 2012. That's even without the bullying practices of LOCOG, the feeling that residents next to the Olympic site were getting nothing and paying all, the corporatisation of everything at the expense of local businesses, the treatment of musicians, the impact on local arts in London - issues covered on these very pages.

In fact, on the last day of these Games, all of these concerns, irritations and frustrations still remain, and none have been undone or overawed by the past three weeks of inspiring swimming, running, riding, diving, sculling, thwacking, grunting, wrestling and flinging. The Olympic dominance of the news schedules as the economy flounders, the Arctic melts at unprecedented speed, and Syria's implosion continues, has been deplorable. Yet there are enormous positives that we can take from these Olympic Games.

The first, and most obvious, is that I don't think that we'll ever again see a serving MP emulating the Right Honourable Member for Cannock Chase Aidan Burley by tweeting, as he did, "Thank God the athletes have arrived! Now we can move on from leftie multicultural crap. Bring back red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones!". It was nice to imagine that, as the mixed race Jessica Ennis won the bogglingly difficult Heptathlon and Somali-born Mo Farah achieved gold in not just the 10,000 but 5,000 metres, he was stood on the battered poop of the a-historical Good Ship Albion, with its fantasy of white Englishmen (of course of neither Angle nor Saxon immigrant birth), offering four Heil Enochs as that particular lie-dream sank beneath the waves. Of course, this will not silence the EDL or other assorted scumbags of the racist right, but it is a powerful blow.

Then there's the snapshot of a difference that a year, and perhaps the Games makes, in one small bit of London not too far from the Olympic site, which glows (lighting the omnipresent blimp) from my kitchen window.

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a personal view on the riots on Clarence Road, Hackney, where I live. On a very similar night to that, hot, heady, London, just 360-odd days later, there was a very different scene to that of exploding cars, upturned bins, gleefully looting kids, the sense of a punch in the nose of... something. The Olympics will not wipe away the issues of poverty, disaffection, lack of opportunity and materialism that caused the riots, but they do offer an alternative narrative of our local area. As Mo Farah ran the last metres of his 5000 gold, agonised screams turned into exultant cheers outside my open windows in E5. Near to the spot where, almost exactly 12 months prior, a Hackney lady so courageously defended her community from the rioters, now stands a sizzling bbq and drinks table, happy Londoners and Jamaican flags of people ready to celebrate the men's 4x100 relay.

Across the road, at a packed Aunty Fatty's West Indian Take Away (mentioned in the riot rant), Jamaican cross and union flag were hung side-by-side. All around, there was a very different, relaxed, happy air, an almost palpable sense of positivity the seemed to affect us all.

This is the Britain that I love. This is the Britain that's too often forgotten. Or rather suppressed by, on the one hand, Britain natural inclination for cynicism... the assumption that our best years are behind us, and on the other hand by disgusted prejudice - the product of identity angst on one hand and nationalistic pride on the other. It's not that only now, after a haul of medals, we now have something to be proud of. Anyone who loves this country can find pride in the everyday: way the light shines on the shape of a cloud, the taste of a certain food, the smell of the flora and fauna in particular seasons. It's more the case that Britain's athletes, not her artists or architects or engineers, have offered us an alternative route to collective enthusiasm and multicultural integration, in a day and age when the cynical, vainglorious juggling of nonentities - via celebrity culture, idiot footballers, X Factor and reality TV - is the customary stimulus to community spirit and British unity in the early 21st century. Unlike the Jubilee, or indeed most of what is celebrated in Britain, this time our collective pride has nothing to do with nostalgia.

Yet this can all-too-easily go to waste. It's comes as a great relief that the Coalition have made a spectacular failure of trying to make political capital of the Games. PR boobs abounded, from Jeremy Hunt losing his bell end to a spate of Tory/LibDem infighting more vicious than any event in the Olympic park, to the hilarious own goal of the tweeted image of David Cameron taking a mid-afternoon break (when the rest of us were working) to watch the boxing. And let's not forget that Aidan Burley isn't the only Tory blasting multicultural Britain. A short while ago, our Prime Minister made a confused speech in which he declared that multi-culturalism had "failed". But no doubt the Coalition will continue their efforts to to capitalise on the Olympic bonhomie. It's vitally important this is resisted.

The 'Inspire a generation' slogan, and plans to increase sports participation among children, were what brought the Olympics to London. Yet Cameron's enthusiasm for compulsory sports that don't include "indian dance" but instead focus on competition and building team spirit (in the experience of many an oxymoron, a falsehood which only ever exists for the talented), is a step that harks back to the myth about the Battle Of Waterloo being won on the playing fields of Eton. That notion seems to have shaped traditionalist sports policy to the present day, the nonsense that clean-limbed youth pummelling each other into the mud somehow makes us better people, better Britons. Rather than team sports, the lesson educationalists should take from these Olympic successes is that individuals ought to be allowed to get on with what suits them best.

Danny Boyle's fiery celebration of the NHS was a subversive highlight of the brilliant opening ceremony. It's vital, though, that rollerblading nurses and the metaphorical monsters attacking children in hospital beds should not lead us into political/cultural complacency, as highlighted here by my colleague John Doran. Now the Games are nearly done there must be a fightback for the funding of arts organisations. Just as over recent weeks we've proved more than capable of supporting the Olympics' abundance obscure and unusual pursuits, are not the British public just as capable of supporting, and indeed enjoying, the more oblique examples of British underground music and art.

The 'legacy' programme of London 2012 was apparently a key part of why the British capital won the Games, way back in 2005. But aside from potential white elephant theme parks in East London, grooming victors for Brazil 2016, or the chimera of economic regeneration, the real legacy of London 2012 is something quite unexpected. A country in flux which so often leaps schizophrenically between empty jingoism and cringing insecurity, we have been shown how colourful, enthusiastic, welcoming, and pluralist a nation we are, perhaps now more than ever before. As I chow down on my fedora, that's something I for one can drink to.

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Aug 12, 2012 12:45pm

A brilliant article, and sentiments that I agree with entirely. I am not the least bit nationalistic- usually I am not at all proud to consider myself part of the Britain that we live in (largely because of the actions, words and mentalities of such grotesque thuggish bastards of the EDL, BNP, and on a (perhaps) more intellectual basis, Cameron, Burley and their cronies). While thinking of Burley's comments after the opening ceremony still bestows a tremendous amount of rage upon me, the olympics has completely proven him wrong. The sense of unity encouraged and brought on by the olympics is the greatest I've seen in Britain probably in my life time. Burley thinks the state shouldn't sponsor multiculturalism, and Cameron thinks it has failed. The last three weeks have thoroughly rendered them morons.

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Aug 12, 2012 1:23pm

You've been had.

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Aug 12, 2012 1:54pm

Us hardcore cynics are going to wait for 3 months after the Olympics parade is over to see if the positive benefit is really worth shouting about. Though I guess most media sources will be onto the next big narrative then (my money is on it being a tragedy).

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Aug 12, 2012 3:16pm

To me the Olympics has been a brilliant success besides that god awful opening ceremony. I'm hoping that the support behind British athletics can build on this success by 1) keeping funding consistent and 2) I'd like to see more promotion and coverage of events like the world and European championships. The sport wont grow in the UK if most of the emphasise is placed on a 4 year event.

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Gerry Naismith
Aug 12, 2012 10:05pm

Which National Identity is it you're proud of? I'm a bit confused as to how one nation could be composed of other nations, assuming you admit they exist (England, for

example, or Scotland, where I live). Britain is a political state which constitutes a union of different nations. Is Britain the over-nation to the sub-nations? Or is

it the only nation, the other nations being mere regions, in which case, are they still nations? British identity is really, I would suggest, essentially an English

coat with colourful little Celtic tassles.

I must be fair, all the same. You did show a lot of genuine human warmth and fellow feeling. Internationalism even! I enjoyed the events and cheered on many English

competitors (not just to please my English wife), your Bradleys and your Mohs, as well as many from Scotland, Cuba, Jamaica and various other places - it depended on

the narrative of the night (I felt almost no obligation). Many uplifting moments were relayed to me in high definition (and 3D). But let's face it, this was

practically a southern English event with a few placatory nods to Wales, the north and Scotland. In Glasgow, the BOA banned and confiscated the Saltire, the nation's

flag, from being flown at Olympic events and insisted on the state flag flying instead. (This is the one that has the red First Aid sign stamped over the saltire - no

ambiguity there).

Why were Scottish medallists forced to sing the English national anthem? Because it's also the British national anthem? Then why is the British national anthem the

same as the English national anthem? What about everyone else? Because England is the majority nation? Surely the relative size of the nations is irrelevant if the

union has any meaning?

Apart from the fact that the British state has reduced my net monthly pay to help finance events so far distant, I don't have a major problem with the Greater

Londoners pushing the Good Ship Albion out in the way they have. You're obviously genuinely superior to those EDL and BNP blockheads but, regarding British identity,

there's a lot more work to be done. Nor would I have expected you to have staged the Olympics anywhere else, since the BOA is based there and their families too, I


Regarding the Opening Ceremony, I have to say it was first class. Danny Boyle is a brilliant English director. However, it was hardly as leftie as the John Bulls

blustered it was. Left-ish at a push. It was essentially the New Labour version of Britain history, which is a sort of Floppy-Tory thing. It was felt essential to

include the Suffragettes, quite rightly, and to indicate the origins of multiculturalism, equally so. Unfortunately, the entire history of labour struggle in Britain

was airbrushed out completely into a kind of cosy togetherness that never existed.

There was nothing about the massacre in Manchester, Churchill's tanks in Glasgow (never mind the horse-shit justifiably thrown his way in Dundee), nor the mass dock

strikes of London. There were vague hints (I think) about patrician paternalists courtesy of Britain's iron pioneers (I think), like Brunel. (Wasn't Thomas Telford

Britain's greatest engineer?). Then we jumped through time and were regaled with a jaunty paean to our industrial-strength commodification of the hit parade, which

made us rich and saved us, apart from the cuts. All very New Labour, which means New Thatcher.

Ignore the John Bull, the Opening Ceremony wasn't leftie enough. At one point it considerately cut for 17 seconds (I timed it on the replay) to some kids singing in

Scotland and did the same again in Wales, so that we didn't feel left out. Ignore the John Bull, it wasn't multicultural enough.

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Aug 12, 2012 11:26pm

I'm sorry but this whole 'some ethnic people won medals, take THAT!' attitude is bloody patronising as hell and a clear sign that Britain has a LOT of shit to work out. Immigrants shouldn't have to win medals to be 'accepted' and people who aren't white who win medals shouldn't be turned into bloody causes to bash people with. It's just excruciating. We'll know our country is in a healthy state when a) we don't feel the need to write countless fecking articles about the colour of some medal winners and b) people stop banging on about immigrants, asylum seekers etc. I don't believe for a second that the Olympics means the latter is going to stop. It's a completely exceptional situation which folk with cynical, reactionary agendas are exploiting. Usually The Quietus is a bit smarter than this.

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Aug 12, 2012 11:38pm

"It's more the case that Britain's athletes, not her artists or architects or engineers, have offered us an alternative route to collective enthusiasm and multicultural integration"

And the great majority of them went to state schools [not the playing fields of Eton...].

How does UK pop music compare?:

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Aug 13, 2012 9:12am

The big achievement of the Olympics has been branding all criticism as cynicism.

It used to be racist to present the ethnic minorities as only good for sport (and music).

And anyone arguing that multiculturalism means different kinds of food for them so gosh isn't it wonderful isn't exactly making the case for its success.

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Rory Gibb
Aug 13, 2012 10:40am

In reply to dirigible:

I don't really think that's the point this piece is making. If you've read a few of the pieces on this site in the lead-up to the Olympics there's been plenty of in-depth criticism that hasn't just been empty cynicism.

This article reads more like a reflection on those thoughts after the event, and I'm broadly in agreement with Luke here, in that I was very suspicious of the whole thing beforehand, and many of the aspects that surrounded the Olympics left (and still leave) a seriously bitter taste in the mouth, but I've been hugely engaged by the actual events themselves (far more than I expected to be), and that goes for seeing athletes both from Britain and across the globe achieve pretty amazing things.

The 'legacy' thing is another matter, and the fall-out and questions that remain in its wake are unlikely to resolve themselves into largely positive results, but I think it's possible - and better - to take the actual sporting events and achievements of the last 2 weeks as largely separate from the corporate/local government/LOCOG/financial bullshit surrounding them (and that comes from someone who's always been chronically bad at, and disinterested in, sport).

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Aug 13, 2012 11:05am

In reply to Rory Gibb:

I think it's always been possible to separate the sport from the event - not least as the Olympics have only existed in their current mega-corporate state for approx 30 years. It was completely predictable that some inspiring sporting feats would happen so I really don't understand why some are so surprised by this. The problem is that 'I have been inspired by the sport, I'll leave aside the bits I don't like' is a response which does recast *all* criticism as 'cynical' because the implication is that we should be able to take positives from it and focus on them. Saying 'I did criticise aspects beforehand and still do so' is pretty meaningless when they're reconceptualised as cynical gripes which have floundered in the face of the warm glow of inspiration.

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Aug 13, 2012 12:03pm

In reply to survivalbag:

Actually a vast majority of our athletes went to private school, not state schools. That has been the common news-line and complaint. I'm not sure where you're getting it from that most were state-school athletes. Funding and opportunity in sports, like most other avenues involving expensive training and facilities, is the preserve of the well-to-do. That's why Gove's cuts to the state-school budget are now being called for a U-turn.

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Aug 13, 2012 2:38pm

any hat eating good feeling I felt, was completely drained from me by that fucking woeful closing party. if ever there was reminder of how crap we can be as country that was it, so glad all that flag waving is finally over.

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Lana Del Ray Lee Otter
Aug 14, 2012 11:16am

I'm sure the 1936 Olympics were jolly entertaining and stirred a few pulses but they were still organised by a bunch of fucking Nazis.

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Aug 15, 2012 9:47am

Good article. I mostly agree with it.

Got to take issue with some of the comments here. I think the opening ceremony was about as dark as one could make it. I don't see the point in criticising it for not including references to the Peterloo Massacre and other skeletons in our collective closets, because it's an Olympic opening ceremony. Of course it's going to try and focus on the more positive things, that's what these events are there to do. I don't think China's opening ceremony made any references to the ghastly consequences of the Cultural Revolution or the virtual slave labour conditions in factories there. I don't think Australia's opening ceremony made much mention of the way the Aboriginal people were and still are grossly mistreated by the white settlers [though it was a while back so feel free to correct me]. If you want to criticise these types of ceremonies for presenting too clean cut a picture of the societies they're representing then fine but why on earth do you expect them to present a 'warts and all' picture in the first place? That's never going to be the way these types of events operate and to expect them to do so is just naive. I'm all for presenting an honest picture of one's society and want to see our misdeeds publicly acknowledged on a wider scale than they are but if the entire world turns up to an event you're hosting then of course you're just going to show them the good sides, it's human nature to do that and to expect otherwise is bizarre.

I agree with a lot of the criticisms of the Games - the over-restrictive LOCOG rules on what you could and couldn't do, the way the IOC dictates terms, the inevitable corruption in various areas and the over-corporatisation, but these are problems with the Olympics as a whole, not just this one.

I also remain deeply sceptical on whether the supposed 'Olympic Legacy' will be truly followed up; needless to say I don't trust the current crop of politicians [of all stripes] to do it.

I am also not so naive as to think that two weeks of fabulous sporting achievement can make good the deep social and logistical problems this country faces. The Olympics aren't a magic bullet, though I wish they were, but life doesn't work that way.

What I have thoroughly appreciated the Olympics for is that it has shown in so many ways that we as a country and as humans can achieve quite amazing things if we have the vision and the desire to put our backs into it. Before the Games there was a media hysteria about many things - the transport system was going to crack under the strain, the security would be a shambles, the organisation wouldn't work, business deliveries would be too affected - all kinds of disasters were discussed. Aside from the ticketing/empty seats fiasco [something which has been a problem at Olympics since Los Angeles '84 apparently] everything went remarkably well. Yes I know businesses in London complained about a fall in trade but that's pretty much the media's fault for going on and on and on about overcrowding and causing lots of people [myself included] to stay at home. But lots of visitors from across the world commented on how well-organised things were and what a wonderful experience it was to be there. Even the French praised us, and they usually like to find stuff to nitpick.

For far, far too long we have been telling ourselves and have been told by the media and various politicians that we can't do big events, that we always make a hash of it, that we aren't capable. And there have been failures [Millenium Dome/Bridge, various transport projects over the years]. However we don't always screw everything up and the last two weeks have proved this, because the Olympics is something you have to prepare for properly - it's too big to screw up, too much is riding on it. As a consequence we planned accordingly, built everything on time, worked out the logistics [apart from the security but the Army stepped in admirably]. And what do you know, IT WENT WELL.

We aren't completely incapable of doing big events as a country. It's just that there seems to be no middle ground with us. We either spectacularly fail, or we do a brilliant job - there seems to be no inbetween in this regard. And the Olympics has shown us that if we have a vision and prepare and plan for it adequately and throughly, we will invariably do well more than we fail.

The same maxim applies to the sport. It's been so wonderful to see our athletes take so many medals, and the simple reason behind it is years of training and preparation, and total dedication and commitment to a goal. It's paid off marvellously and I could not think of better role models to illustrate the point to young people that if you want something enough and are prepared to put in the hard work then you can achieve it. Some athletes had endured disappointment before but had pulled themselves back up and kept going until they reached their aims.

Which is the whole message I've taken from these games. I know the social problems and injustices we face are vast. Some can be solved in a few years, others will take decades or longer to truly put right. But even more soul-sapping than the injustices that have and are being perpetrated every day is the underlying attitude I pick up from a lot of people and the media - an attitude of complete cynicism and negativity that things are too far gone or hopeless, an overall mix of anger with underlying despair, which is a toxic combination.

I fully understand the reasons behind this thinking. God knows, I've been there myself for the past few years, and it does drain the life from you. The energy needs a focus, some kind of outlet, and in our current political climate no obvious channel for it exists at present. I can pick up on the sense of desperation and frustration only too well in this regard.

What is needed is some kind of belief or hope to hold on to. Cynics will perhaps say that it's foolish to try and do such a thing, to have any dreams of a better future at all. I personally think that if people never held onto their ideals then nothing would happen in the world, and a lot of great achievements by people have only come about because they - like our athletes, like the people who organised the Olympics - had a vision and held onto it, and persevered until its realisation.

But no matter how strongly one holds on to one's beliefs and hopes, the dark times will always test them. In such hours people need to see that they can achieve their goals and dreams, and they need concrete examples of this. That is what I've felt about so many aspects of the Olympics - the way the preparations came together, the sporting successes, the moments when people came together and were happy despite all their problems. As the original article points out, over the last two weeks we have seen that there is another side to Britain other than cynicism and uncaring right wing socioeconomic policies, that there are lots of decent people out there who work hard and who do care about their fellow human beings, that it is possible for people to come together and be happy. It's very good to realise that this aspect of ourselves exists and that we aren't 100% doomed/evil/rubbish.

The media coverage helped in this regard. I have some reservations about the fact that lots of important events were shunted to the background for a while, like Syria, but to have the headlines broadcasting stories of what people can achieve when they put their minds to it was a welcome change from the norm. I'm not suggesting newspapers go the other way and broadcast nothing but optimism, and it is vital darker events get reported so something can be done about them, but the sheer wall of negativity most media indulge in - probably somewhat unwittingly - is akin to psychological warfare. Of course some people will say I'm being too naive here, but if the message of 'you are scum and this is awful and the world will get worse' is constantly drummed in to people then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Back to the Olympics though. I was almost turned off them beforehand through the months of worry and moaning [sometimes justified] that preceded them, but as soon as they started I loved it and found it thrilling and inspiring. If you didn't see it that way, fine, but I personally did.

One thing stands out for me above all else - the lighting of the torch. This was a moment that genuinely surprised me and thrilled me in a way I did not expect. The way the torch was put together with eacn nation contributing a copper 'petal' and the way seven of our greatest Olympians passed on the flame to the younger generation to light the cauldron, which then drew up into a truly amazing thing... it was deeply, deeply powerful and regenerative. In that moment I felt something, a realisation that it is possible to achieve things and to make something good despite everything. I will always remember that moment. If that makes me sound like an out of touch hippy then I don't care. In the darkness and the mire, it was a moment of light. I have spent the last few years losing faith that such moments could ever exist again; it was reaffirmed then that indeed they do.

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Gerry Naismith
Aug 16, 2012 3:43pm

In reply to SD:

SD, you've missed my point, I think, unless else I didn't make myself clear. Of course I was being deliberately disingenuous and a little sardonic when I hinted at Peterloo, a dung-besmirched Churchill crushing northern revolts and the troubled past of London. I was trying to puncture a little what seemed like a cosy New Labour (maybe even New Tory) vision of middle-class benificence towards the compliant wee workers, as you might have surmised. However, what I was driving at, perhaps somewhat elliptically, was not that the Opening Ceremony should have portrayed the truth of their oppression but that the prosperity openly feted was won as much by the socialist struggles of ordinary working-class people as were the progressions in feminism and multiculturalism, all of which we should commemorate, and not all of which we did, that night. Of course, I wouldn't have expected to see English dragoons slicing the faces off English weavers with Royal Assent or Scottish soldiers being locked up by English soldiers and their streets invaded by English tanks. Damnit, I wouldn't even have expected to have seen Lenin depicted drafting the notice that informed London it should now refer all ambassadorial enquiries to the new Soviet Embassy in a wee semi-detached hoose in Glesgie (Glasgow)! Naturally, the OC had to focus on the more positive things. Naturally, I wasn't expecting to see them kill a horse, by having an actress commit suicide at its feet whilst another actor plays a king crying because she died (side-by-side with the suicide). Of course not! (I'm doing it again, sorry :-) ).

It was wrong of you, I think, to assume that I would have expected that. Of course I wouldn't have expected the Chinese in Beijing to show loyal communists killing other loyal communists with a wee red book or Sydney to have shown Scottish and English emigrants hunting down naked Australians on horseback. I can't remember their Opening Ceremonies to be honest, and it isn't worth the trawl now, but I would have expected the Chinese to show some kind of tribute to the struggle of the Chinese workers and I would have expected the younger, white Australians to have made reference to the struggle of the older, black ones. Tell me I'm not wrong. Please! The comparisons I would have preferred you to have made, here it is now plainly stated, without the irony that made me seem so naive to you, would have been between the popular struggles of the dispossessed in Britain and those in Brazil, China, Greece, Australia, USA, or wherever.

It's silly really but I suppose my point was that if you went to the bother of showing the sisters on the march and the brothers on the gangway, where was the red flag under which they both marched? Whatever hygienic opinion you have of what you call skeletons in the cupboard, in 2012, there's no denying the huge part they played in the creation of Britain's social justice and prosperity (leaving aside the debate on the current accuracy of that description). You reveal more about yourself by calling them this when what they really represent is something we can be truly proud of and, as the current parlance has it, celebrate (as with suffragettes, multiculturalism, peace campaigners, and so on). Why are suffragettes and hard-working immigrants our good side but socialism, which give so much to the poor, and included so many suffragettes and immigrants, the Beast of Glamis? A celebration of our proud labour history need not have been like a 1970s Yugoslavian gymnastic jamboree (not even a royal jubilee).

Danny Boy did give us the NHS scenes, which were genuinely great (as he is), but there was no connection made explicit between that and what came before. Of course, he wasn't directing a sociological monograph but think about the opportunity he had. Maybe for a 15-year-old txtng and ntwrkng fiend the NHS just happened? And didn't it used to be bigger once? Forget Alexander Graham Bell and John Logie Baird. Never mind the Forth Rail Bridge. The greatest invention of the British nations (but above all the Welsh!) really is the NHS and it isn't going to be saved from destruction by the Barbarians in Eton and the Vermin Club in Millbank until the airbrushing's over. We were fooled after the Sixties and we thought it was all sorted out. But we forgot about the 'lady' from Grantham and her many children, so the skeletons need to rattle their bones again. I suspect that suffragettes and multiculturalism are now ‘fluffy’, establishment, but socialism is still the S-word. Best ignored.

But, SD, my reply was actually in two halves. The first half seems to have been ignored so far by all responders. Why, following an article about so-called British national identity, is this? Is it just English identity you want to talk about when you say 'British'? I was concerned with how British national identity relates to its Scottish counterpart, how in fact the British national identity described in the article is actually just a sort of English-Plus++ identity, which only remains -Plus++ if the people of the other nations buy into it. To talk about pride in the British nation is essentially meaningless since there is no British nation and there never has been. This isn’t chauvinism and it isn’t anti-Englishness to say this. The people of all nations should be treated as fairly as each other. The Romans referred to the area of England and Wales (roughly) as 'Britannia', excluding most of Scotland. You surely can't mean that (since the various tribes under their dominion were hardly nations)?

Britain is a political state uniting different modern nations. Each of these nations is supposed to be considered the equal of the other. Size therefore is irrelevant. Scotland is often listed as a UK region, together with English regions, such as Yorkshire, for example. But the equivalent of Scotland is England, not any part of England. The equivalent of any part of England is any part of Scotland, such as Fife, for example. As I said, their relative size is irrelevant and so is their prowess and achievement in any human endeavour unless they have proven incompetence, which case you are welcome to take up. This does not appear to be how London has grown to see the national combination, however, and if that's true, London is quite plainly wrong.

The Opening Ceremony didn't do anything to make me think any differently about this despite the fact that, as a person who pays taxes to the British treasury, I helped to pay for the events that led to your outburst in pride at your 'British' national identity. We Scots are actually brought up to be generous towards people who live in other parts of the world (I've only rarely had that important formative view undermined). Most English visitors to Scotland will confirm this, I'm confident. Culturally we are brought up to believe that all humans are born equal. This means the queen, the old whores in Soho, Jade Goody and my auntie (sorry auntie).

Individual Scots might do their best to give the lie to this, under various influences, but it's there in the work of Burns and MacDiarmid and Mackendrick and Mullen and Wilkie and wheens and wheens of other diverse Scottish artists and it filters down to the people on the street to this day. Despite this, and to our great guilt and discomfort, we're driven to the most pettifogging quibbling (certainly as many English people see it, I'm sure) by things that we would otherwise see as trifling and churlish to complain about (laying aside the fact that there are people just naturally like that in every nation).

Neverthetheless, almost on a daily basis, we experience these things as deliberate snubs or unwitting ignorance on the part of the English media (the worst culprits). Trust me, I'm not exaggerating. A recent example of this Scottish pettiness. This morning the main BBC news reported on the English, Scottish and Northern Irish friendlies last night. They showed all of the goals in the England game and one each from the other two matches. Granted there were more goals scored in the other matches but they could have spent a few seconds longer on them. The sports fans in Scotland and Northern Ireland don't think that the English highlights are more important. No doubt they thought the news channel 'Where I Live' would give us the full picture but why should we have had to wait for that? Scotland and England are equivalents and should be treated as equivalents. If, on the internet, a Scot had read a Catalan guy complaining that a Spanish news channel had done the same thing he might condemn it as chauvinistic nitpicking. But when this sort of thing happens to himself on a daily basis it is exasperating. This is just the tip of the lettuce.

I live in a village of about 50 houses. There must be about 10 families who are English or part-English living here. They help to run things in the village, alongside the Scots, without any issue. Most of the English villagers, I suspect, would be against Scottish independence but I know that some English people in Scotland are in favour of it and campaign for it. They do this because being against the continuation of the British state is not the same thing as being anti-English. But every English person living in Scotland that I've ever met over the decades, regardless of their position on this, always says the same thing - "I didn't realise Scotland was so different". Most of them say that they understand better why the Scots get annoyed, including my northern English partner, even if they are against independence (she’s on the fence, by the way, but doesn’t fear independence). If English people have to come here to learn what being Scottish really means, how can we expect English people who don't come here to really 'get' us? And if they don't 'get' us, how can we trust them to act in our interests when they cooperate over our governance in the big centres of power so far away in another country?

Otherwise, I agree with most everything else you say, about LOCOG, the supposed legacy, the panacea. You're right - England did do itself proud. You should be proud to wave the St. George's flag. It was a great experience even hundreds of miles away on TV in Scotland. Just don't pretend it was a great British experience, as the original article suggests. A few hundred or a few thousand Scots attending it, in whatever capacity (Olympic medals aside), doesn't change that. Five million more didn't. If England had been hosting the Commonwealth Games and (somehow) it just so happened that the same quality of athletes were there if not the same roster of stars, the obvious enthusiasm of the English would have shone through almost as much (allowing that the Olympics is 'bigger' and more eventful).

It did go really well. As a pro-independence Scot I'm puzzled by this feeling you claim to have had beforehand of always screwing things up. I don't think it's our impression up here. And you might almost think that I would welcome hearing that (even though I wouldn't). When did the English (British) spectacularly fail at organising these sort of events? On the contrary, I have a French friend (with whom, generically, the English are also always nit-picking) and he claims that the English are the most efficient in Europe, along with the Germans (with whom ... ).

I also think the news really should have put Syria first but I also got carried away with the Olympics. It's understandable I think, especially if you lived close to it. Your final speech was a little doom-laden and Churchillian but heartfelt and admirable. The torch-carrying around the towns was just plain silly - the sacred light going out and being re-lit by faglight (should they not have had to start all over again in Greece?), the proliferation of torches on E-Bay - all silly - but the lighting of the torches in the stadium was superb and genuinely moving, even via satellite - I'll give you that!

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Aug 17, 2012 11:14am

In reply to Gerry Naismith:

In reply to Gerry Naismith:

Firstly, apologies for getting a little carried away in my previous post - I do have a tendency to go OTT on things sometimes.

I think I didn't make myself clear when I referred to the 'skeletons in the closet'. By that phrase I meant Peterloo, various mistreatments of the less well-off in society by right wing governments, and our imperial fondness for owning large parts of the world. These are aspects of our society which aren't something to be proud of, and therefore in an OC they wouldn't be on show.

I wasn't referring to the social struggles people made to improve these things as being 'skeletons'. I was surprised to see the opening ceremony even touch on the issue of the Suffragettes, but welcomed it. I'd have liked there to have been more trade unionists, social reformers [Plimsoll for example] and also the entire 1945 Labour government in the opening ceremony as well. But again, it's an Olympic opening ceremony, and I personally wasn't expecting to witness such things there, given how the prevailing political/media tendency since the late 70s has been to try and disregard the achievements of these people.

Yes, there was something rather New Labour in that it only touched on certain points, and didn't focus too much on how so many people pushed for a better society over the generations, but I was kind of astonished that it was even mentioned at all, given that these types of events have a tendency to be very corporate and sanitised nowadays.

I think my main point though was that an Olympic opening ceremony will never be the type of thing that can be expected to show these kinds of things, so therefore while I wish more socialist/reformist events and people had been shown in more detail in it, to have them mentioned in any way at all was quite surprising to me, and it's slightly annoying when people [not necessarily yourself] criticised the ceremony for not going far enough in this regard, because I wonder what they expected in the first place. As I said, I'd have loved to have seen all the socialist giants and social reformers really acknowledged, and to have been treated in a much less simplistic way, but in these current times I don't expect an Olympic opening ceremony to give them much of a mention.

Moving on - I'm not quite sure where in my original post I came across as regarding the UK as 'England plus the other nations', and that wasn't my point anyway.

Just to make clear, I have the same concerns as many others in the way London [well Whitehall and Westminster and the City really] see the UK in terms of 'London first, everyone else second'. This is a huge problem especially as London is so vast compared to other cities in the country. Belive me, nothing riles me more than the unequal weight London and the SE of England carry in importance compared to the North of England, West Country and Scotland/Wales/NI, and I'm from Greater London myself.

I can see where you're coming from when you describe the Olympics as a 'southern English event with bits of elsewhere tacked on' [not the exact quotation, but roughly correct]. I would have liked to see the Olympics awarded to Newcastle, or Glasgow, or even Belfast maybe. A joint-city bid by, say, Liverpool/Manchester would have been interesting. But the fact is that the Olympics have reached a size where only the biggest cities in the world can really qualify for putting them on - indeed some people wonder if this trend has reached a logical end point and we'll see a reversal to smaller Olympics, or joint city bids, as only supercities can pull them off nowadays to what the IOC require. So while I'd have liked to have seen the Olympics outside of London, realistically in the current scheme of things it wasn't going to happen. The IOC made it clear that only a London bid had any chance of success. Maybe some more dispersal of events would have been a good idea - Weymouth had the sailing, I'm sure other cities could have been given events to hold [apart from football] but logistically the IOC probably wouldn't have allowed that either.

However, one of the things I enjoyed most about our winning athletes was that they seemed to come from all parts of the country, from Cornwall to Scotland, from the wilds of North Wales to East London. Our team contained people from all over the country and in that sense one could argue it was a truly British team and one to be proud of.

This may geographically have been a London/SE England event, and beforehand I was critical of it for being so, but in terms of our medal winners and the people backing them it wasn't, it was a genuinely unifying and positive national thing. At least that's how I interpreted it. Where the Olympics were held may have been predictable and only benefiting the London/SE crowd [who usually benefit more than those in other parts of the UK on lots of things], but our medal winners came from all across our country and our society to an extent [though I definitely agree with the over-representation of privately schooled athletes - a discussion for another time]. That's a key reason why I've felt much more inspired by the last two weeks than I could have thought, it's felt like a benefit for the whole country [even if this isn't entirely true], seeing people from all parts of the country achieve greatness.

British identity and what constitutes Britain wasn't a main theme in my original post. But in response to both of your postings, I'll make some points:

* I agree with you that all the component nations of the UK should carry equal weight - it's sad and probably inevitable that England tends to carry more than the others given its size and the fact that London was the epicentre of the Empire for so long. And the media definitely perpetrate this by zoning in on London/England to the detriment of all else.

* God Save The Queen is the anthem of the United Kingdom, not of England. England doesn't technically have an anthem as such, but out of not knowing what exactly constitutes English identity, and also from the old days when the British Empire and England were the same thing in people's minds, GSTQ is used as the de facto English national anthem. Personally I can't stand it and would prefer Jerusalem. But it's wrong to claim that the Scottish athletes were singing the English national anthem, technically it isn't true.

* I wouldn't agree that British identity entirely conforms to your vision of 'an English coat with little Celtic tassels'. Too simplistic. One could argue that Wales and NI are often reduced to 'tassel' status, but Scotland is a different matter. If one looks at the engineers, scientists and politicians over the centuries it's pretty clear that the core of the British Union is Anglo-Scottish. Scotland, way more than Wales or NI/Ireland, has been an integral part of the Union from day one. The unification of the crowns happened when the English asked James VI of Scotland to be their king, not the other way around. As for your comment on the Union flag having a St George's cross sttamped over the saltire, I'm pretty sure that there was an early version of the Union Jack where the arrangement was the other way around, perhaps an acknowledgement of the Scottish weight in the Union. [The Welsh, by contrast, aren't represented on the Union Jack and never have been - they really should be].

The Welsh and the Irish didn't really have much of a say in the UK's formation - it just happened to them regardless. Scotland, though, made a political agreement to join with England, and as a result has always had a larger say in the Union than the other Celtic nations and has punched way above its weight given its population size.

The official way the British Empire presented itself may have been couched in the idea of English fair play and received pronunciation in a Southern English style, but the truth is more complex than that.

PLEASE be aware that I'm not intending to be pro-English, pro-Union or anti-Scottish here - that wasn't my intention at all. I am well aware that Scotland has been mistreated by London/England a lot over the centuries [for example the Highland clearances - one of the most deeply horrifying events in British history, and more recently Thatcher using it to test out the poll tax for no good reason other than racism]. I fully support devolved assemblies in Wales/Scotland/NI, want to see regional assemblies in England, and have no objection to whether Scotland goes independent or not. London isn't the epicentre of an Empire any more and I'd like to see its hold on these islands weakened - the more devolution the better.

If I came across as being pro-Union in my earlier post, it's down to the simple fact that while I agree with devolution of powers and strong individual identities for all the constituent nations of the UK, I'm also of the opinion that when we pool our resources and pull together we can achieve some truly amazing things. That's why the Olympics have been great in a sporting sense. England on its own would have finished a bit lower down the medal table. Scotland would have got several golds and a clutch of medals, and Wales would have done about the same as Ireland, maybe slightly better. Respectable enough, but pool our resources and something amazing happens.

It's the same thing with the football team - actually especially with the football team. TBH I think that if a Great Britain and NI football team had competed in the post war years we would have won 2 world cups and a few other things - we wouldn't probably be as good as Germany but we'd at least be the equal of Argentina, and wouldn't have quite so much delusion as the home nations have between their ability and what they think they can achieve.

The opening ceremony was powerful because recently I've been thinking that re-casting the UK in a new way wasn't possible, that only the break-up would bring new life to the country. Seeing the torch lit and the sporting success and the way we put on a great Games has made me rediscover a belief that it is possible to do this, it is possible to build a new and better society as the UK, though it will be bloody hard to do. That's a feeling I've lost for a long time.

If the UK broke up, well that's just how things happen, and I wouldn't begrudge Scotland its fresh start under independence. It would also be a rebirth. It's just that I'm now realising that while I'd like to see as much devolution away from Westminster as possible, and stronger regional identity and pride in all parts of the country, I would like to see it balanced with a realisation that when the four nations of the UK pool their resources they can come up with something truly astounding [like the NHS - Bevan the ex-miner from South Wales formulating the vision and pushing it through, with Attlee the lawyer's son from Surrey backing him to the hilt on it].

Until I saw that torch lit I didn't really believe this was possible, but it gave me the idea that it might be, given enough hard work and vision.

Basically I'm all for regional identity/devolution but don't want to lose the ability for the four UK nations to unite and produce something truly great.

One final thing - the feeling I sometimes get of us always screwing thing sup is probably because I read the media and various websites [like the Guardian forums] way too much, and I can take things to heart. My thinking is rather black and white a lot of the time too.

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Aug 17, 2012 11:29am

In reply to SD:

Just an addition to what I said about Scotland entering into a political union with England of its own accord - I'm aware that the reason Scotland decided to join with England owed quite a lot to the fact that its own bid for an empire in Panama didn't turn out well and the resulting financial loss was a major factor for Scottish pro-unionists to push for integration with England. I'm also aware that the 1707 Union was not necessarily well-received in Scotland at the time, and that England wanted a union with Scotland so as to ensure no trouble came from north of the border. Nevertheless I still see it as different to what, say, the Welsh experienced as Scotland wasn't conquered but ended up negotiating a union with England, and there was an element of choice to enter on the Scottish side.

Even if one agrees with Burns claiming that Scotland was 'bought and sold for English gold', and resents the way the Union came about, things evolve and change. I still think that it's possible to recast the Union in a new way, as a recognition that we can achieve so much that's good together if we put our minds to it. That's just me being rather over-upbeat about it though.

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Jan 12, 2013 11:05am

In reply to Steven:

I totally agree. The way that some people are acting oer this is deplorable and if children in high school (my children and their friends) can see this, they why the bloody hell are we all so blind?

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