I was on a deadline throughout the Olympic games. I was rushing to finish the first draft of a book that is partly about national identity. So my work schedule had to compete both with my desire to follow the astonishing success of Team GB and to observe the national mood.
One thing I did forgo in the interests of my deadline was reading the newspapers. And having just worked through a big pile of them I can report that much of the commentary that even a few days ago might have felt appropriate already seems portentous, hyperbolic and sometimes downright silly.
I do, however, want to jump on the Olympic bandwagon too. Especially when combined with the Diamond Jubilee I think the Olympic fortnight—plus Danny Boyle’s show—does represent an important moment in the evolution of the national identity story. One of those crystallising events when small and normally invisible shifts in sentiment come together to reveal something significant.
First some of the nonsense. Why was everyone so surprised at the success? I was not expecting it to be quite the triumph it was, with the extra thrill coming from the success of the British athletes. But it is one of the cliches about this country that we can put on a good show. The last time we did anything comparable in the sporting field was the European football championships (admittedly only in England) in 1996, and I seem to remember that went pretty well too. And what about the success of the Jubilee itself just a few weeks ago.
Another annoying trope, especially from the left, was the idea of “reclaiming the flag”. For most people the flag was never taken away. The left’s history of the last 50 years places far too much stress on the far right (partly because of the left’s honourable role in challenging and defeating it). It is worth recalling that the National Front at its peak is estimated to have had about 15,000 members and it never won a single council seat, or even came close. It is true that the BNP has, until recently, had much greater electoral success. But it is the ambivalence about the flag of left and liberal Britain that has been a much bigger obstacle to the establishment of a comfortable, unchauvinistic national sentiment in the past two generations.
And we have been celebrating the success of a multiracial Olympic team since at least the 1980s. It is true that in the 1980s and 1990s there was often an edge when a black or brown Briton draped themselves in the flag: “This is my flag too”. This time it just seemed perfectly natural, no different to a white athlete. And there was another difference too. Black people were authority figures in the media, especially in the commentary on track and field, with much of the time an all black expert line up on the BBC of Denise Lewis, Colin Jackson and Michael Johnson.
But to echo my colleague Max Wind-Cowie this was not about multiculturalism—which properly means separate stories for different groups, a “community of communities”—this was a British national story with lots of black and brown people in it. And therein lies the significance of Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony. He produced a national montage which transcended the stale choice between the civic and the ethnic, between the Guardian and the Telegraph, between an inner city multicultural Britain and a provincial town Trooping the Colour sort of Britain.
There are 63m different ways of being British and pretty well everyone could see something of themselves in the Boyle story. It may have been a bit too Festival of Britain for some traditionalists (though Simon Schama’s “Fabian extravaganza” seems a bit harsh) but on the whole he managed to include left and right, young and old, public school and comp, black and white, north and south, not to mention the four nations of the United Kingdom.
So what exactly did this crystallise? It crystallised the final emergence of a banal, ordinary, normal sense of national identity—something that has been a long time coming in post-war Britain. The British, and the English in particular, have had a more complicated story than most: four nations in one state, and an identity forged over 200 years when it was “top nation” and did not need the normal trappings of European nationhood.
But through all that messiness something has emerged. Perhaps because in the past decade or two the numerically dominant English have emerged too, with a sense of being special but no longer superior. That sense of entitlement that used to annoy the Celts, and the rest of the world too, has largely gone. Britain is a smaller place in the world than it was, and devolution has loosened it, but it has found a story again suitable to its new circumstances. The left said there wasn’t one, and the right said it was ineffable but it turns out that Britain has a core national identity after all.
In the Olympic fortnight we saw ourselves partly through the eyes of the watching world and liked what we saw. Cheering happy crowds, James Bond, the Beatles, Mr Bean, a monarch with a sense of humour, all those pop songs. We are quite something still but a normal country with an abnormal past. Danny Boyle reminded us that we invented much of the modern world, though he rather glossed over the fact that we went out and ruled over a large chunk of it too. But as the last imperial generation has grown old and died we have finally lost the sense of regret and nostalgia that coloured national feeling for much of the post-war period.
Jonathan Freedland’s claim that the Olympic success marks the end of British decline, seems almost the opposite of the truth. North sea oil is running out, the financial services sector is in crisis, the armed forces can no longer project power; on most of the conventional indicators decline looks set to accelerate. But we have found a story about ourselves that suits our reduced circumstances. An inventive people, comfortable in their own skins, who can throw a good party. The British are the new Irish.