Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

28 July 2012

Isles of Wonder, or a world left wondering?

So what are we to make of last night’s Olympics opening ceremony? Firstly, I would have to say that it was indeed spectacular and impressive, and many moments stood out that will doubtless linger on in the memory, such as the factory funnels emerging from [England’s] green and pleasant land; the Olympic rings being forged in the steel mills; and the magnificent solution they come up with for lighting the Olympic cauldron.

Now for the criticism. It would be easy to be churlish and run off a list of all the many aspects of British and English history that were glossed over or left out altogether. The ones that stuck out in my mind were the history of Empire and slavery, and the darker moments of our industrial past; although the ‘Satanic mills’ segment of last night’s show did allude to those in a gentle way. You could also mention Magna Carta; the long story of Christianity as a central pillar of the UK nations’ society and culture; the role of sports not included in the Olympics, such as rugby and cricket (or those which, from an English point of view, should not be represented by a British team, such as football); and the history of violence in English society, for which we are infamous throughout the world, as typified by football hooliganism and last summer’s riots.

Similarly, I thought that some of the history in the performance was a bit garbled and skewed, such as when there was a brief moment of remembrance for the victims of World Wars I and II, and the narrative then returned to 19th-century industrial scenes. How about remembering the victims of all wars Great Britain, and then the UK, has been involved in, including the American War of Independence, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Crimean and Boer Wars? Perhaps just a tad sensitive vis-à-vis our US, French, Russian and African guests – so the ceremony shied away from those out of political correctness.

Politically correct does really sum it up, although this was not always compatible with factually correct. I’m thinking, for example, of the celebration of the NHS, which pretended that there is still a ‘UK NHS’, true to its founding principles. The truth, as we know, is that there are now four NHS’s – one for each of the UK’s nations – and that the English one has just recently been opened up to private market forces. Of course, I suppose the creator of last night’s spectacular, Danny Boyle, could have been making another political point by making ‘the NHS’ such a centrepiece; although, if he was, this was again very subtle and indirect, and glossed over the fact that the NHS – the British one – is no more. Perhaps, rather, we should interpret the NHS bit as a celebration of ‘British times past’, of bygone Britain, like most of the rest of the show.

This was in fact a highly backward- and inward-looking, nostalgic and retro view of Britain, and will probably confirm to people of many other countries just how self-important, arrogant and insular ‘the British’ are. ‘Oh’, they might say, ‘so Britain invented the industrial revolution, unionism, women’s rights and suffrage, modern sport, popular music and the World Wide Web, did they?’ Apart from the fact that this is not strictly true, it’s all historical. What is its relevance to the present, and what sort of vision of its future does ‘Great Britain’ have today? And what is its relevance to the many other participating nations that are going through similar convulsions in the present? Has Britain learned something from its past that can help it to guide those other countries and help prepare a sustainable future for the community of nations going forward? What about a vision for a sustainable planet – post-industrial for countries like Britain but still very industrial for many developing nations – to present to all the nations gathered symbolically in the Olympic stadium and watching via the medium, TV, that was invented and first used in live broadcasts in Britain? And what were they to make of all of the ‘in’ cultural references that only British, and sometimes only English, people could really relate to? ‘God, these people are so damn introverted and up their own proverbials!’

The truth of the matter is that ‘Great Britain’ doesn’t actually have a vision of its future nor of its place in a rapidly evolving world. In no small measure, that’s because Great Britain is indeed a historical relic in itself: neither ever a proper, unified nation in its past; nor, certainly, a nation or polity in the present that is capable of expressing and mediating the hopes, aspirations, national sentiment or desire for deeper democracy on the part of its respective constituent nations.

So last night’s event was perhaps after all a fitting celebration of what it means to be British: a multifarious community with a strong sense of its past but no vision for the future. Isles of Wonder and historical reverie, indeed; but one that would have left the rest of the world wondering.



  1. Don’t think Boyle did too bad a job considering. He made sure there was an English and Northern Irish ‘anthem’ in the anthem sections.

    As for the glossing over history and patting on back over historical achievements. I get a little tired of whenever something positive is mentioned getting a list of negative and being told we should be in permanent apology and there is nothing to be proud of in our history or that we don’t have one. It’s supposed to be a celebration. Acknowledging less than perfect parts of history is fine but sometimes people want to celebrate the positive without someone raining on their parade and declaring someone will be ‘offended’.

    Comment by Sarah — 28 July 2012 @ 3.45 pm | Reply

    • Fair enough, up to a point. The thing is the show pretended to offer a sweeping vista of ‘our island history’, or some such. So if you’re aspiring to present some sort of comprehensive vision of ‘what it means to be British’, it stinks of historical revisionism of the blindest kind to present even the things it did focus on in a wholly positive light, let alone to gloss over all of the negatives with which those things were also associated. My point really was that it should have tried to be a statement of what ‘Great Britain’ is in the present, and aspires to be in the future – but it couldn’t be, because that is a non-sequitur.

      Comment by David — 29 July 2012 @ 7.33 am | Reply

      • Which is just another way of saying we should be wringing our hands in abject apology. If it had been sufficiently present or future orientated for you we’d just get the same whataboutery about negatives. If something aspires to be a celebration I expect a celebration ( or at least an attempt at one) not the “OMG can’t say anything positive ‘cos we’re so crap” event that you seem to think should be on offer.

        Comment by Sarah — 29 July 2012 @ 9.22 am

      • Well, maybe; it’s true that I don’t feel too inclined to celebrate Britishness per se. But I think your point’s a bit unfair. I would have tried to engage positively with a creative and honest celebration of what Britain is today and aspires to be in the future, even if I didn’t agree with it. But this is just re-hashing the past in a selective and dishonest way that must have bemused and irritated a lot of the participating nations.

        Comment by David — 29 July 2012 @ 4.44 pm

      • I cannot seem to reply to your later comment.
        I’m sure you don’t feel inclined to celebrate lots of things but if they put on an event as a celebration you wouldn’t expect it to be the OMG we’re shit fest you keep repeatedly complaining the Olympics opening ceremony was not, in the hope that someone will agree that Britain and Britain only, should put on an event as a celebration highlighting parts of its culture and history and tell the world how crappy and shameful it is because anything else might ‘offend’ someone, who certainly wouldn’t expect the same attitude to their history, or care how ‘offended’ someone in Britain might be about being told they could only tell the world how rubbish they were.

        What’s the betting any other opening ceremony, say China’s last time or Brazil’s next, won’t find you complaining that it wasn’t negative enough to satisfy others’ sensitivities. Who do you think will be expected to take on 98 to 110% of this guilt and crapness of Britain that we can’t even have one event without mentioning according to you? The English. Won’t be the Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish. They’ll be skipping off with the usual ‘nowt to do with us gov’ line. I’m fed up with other countries being allowed to celebrate their culture and history without constantly apologising for it but being told somehow that’s unacceptable for the English. If other people are ‘offended’, tough crap frankly, maybe they could consider if they’re ‘offending’ us from time to time. I’m certainly not prepared to accept this attitude being snuck in through the back door which is basically the whole theme of this piece.

        Comment by sarah — 1 August 2012 @ 6.31 am

      • For the avoidance of doubt, I actually quite liked a lot of the ceremony. Much of it was humorous and whimsical in a genuinely charming and entertaining way. What I don’t like about it is the way it has made, and was designed to make, everyone (at least in England) happy to be British again in a manner that once again blurs the distinction between Britishness and Englishness. You yourself appear to have fallen into the trap in your last comment, in that you spring to the defence of ‘Britain’ in one paragraph, and then moan about how it’s only England – not Britain, this time – that’s singled out as having a (British) history to be ashamed of. Which is your country: Britain or England, or do you see the two as indistinct from one another?

        In pulling off this trick, the opening ceremony was also dishonest, both in the parts of the history it evoked that it did not explicitly acknowledge (such as the Empire) and in those it did, such as ‘the NHS’. As we know, the NHS – the British one – no longer exists, and doubly so in England: 1) because of devolution, so that the ‘British’ NHS is in reality the English one; and 2) because, in England only, the health-care sector has been opened up to the market, so that we’re going to see hospitals, GP consortia and treatment centres increasingly picked off by the private sector. By pretending there is still a British NHS to be proud of, the ceremony is perpetuating the same lie about English matters and policies as the government and media propaganda machine.

        In any case, the main thrust of my piece was not about the failure to acknowledge the sins, or otherwise, of the past but about the absence of any authentic and realistic vision of ‘Great Britain”s present and future as a nation, even though that was what the ceremony was trying to evoke through its celebration of things like ‘Britain”s (or England’s?) multi-ethnic, popular culture and ‘Britain”s supposedly pioneering role in the development of the Internet – although, in reality, it’s the US that has innovated most extensively in that field and in the area of internet-based social networking. Do you want there to be a brave new future for a renewed ‘Great-British’ nation, and, if so, is the vision – such as it was – presented by the ceremony one that you wish to embrace or feel is truly representative of ‘Britain’ today: a happy, harmoniously multi-ethnic nation that enjoys life and doesn’t take itself too seriously; where technology offers wonderful opportunities, especially for the young; and which has a vibrant popular music, film and TV culture that it exports around the world, carrying forward the Great-British brand? Some of this is true, to an extent, and especially in London (the Olympics venue) and England, as opposed to Britain as a whole. But is that a serious or realistic vision of Britain today, let alone of England?

        OK, let’s call it British-aspirational; but don’t expect me to celebrate it as true to the England of today.

        Comment by David — 1 August 2012 @ 8.54 am

      • Spare me the patronising can’t you tell the difference between Britain and England, ‘you seem a little confused dearie’, cant. Britain, as my comment makes perfectly clear but you have chosen to ignore, must spend all its time navel gazing and wringing hands is effectively shorthand for England must must spend all its time navel gazing and wringing hands because it’s the English who are expected to shoulder that particular burden. No-one else in the UK is going to or going to be expected to. I’m fed up of being told I must and saying ‘Britain’ must is basically in effect shorthand for the same thing. Interesting for someone who spends a huge amount of time writing about the conflation of Britain and England seems to have entirely missed this in his call for more ‘British’ guilt tripping.

        Comment by sarah — 1 August 2012 @ 8.48 pm

      • Well, I didn’t call for more British guilt tripping, just less British self-congratulation – by which I mean British, not English. It was a Brit fest, and England didn’t really feature other than in the mythic British-pre-history bit at the beginning. That’s really my complaint.

        Comment by David — 2 August 2012 @ 7.35 am

  2. The usual, predictably churlish complaint that this brilliant joyous celebration wasn’t a self-flagellating apology for past sins, real and imaginary.

    Comment by Brian Barder — 28 July 2012 @ 6.04 pm | Reply

    • Well, maybe, and maybe I’m predisposed to react negatively to any celebration of the ‘greatness of Britain’. But that greatness was associated with real sins in the past, which many of the participating nations will be only too painfully aware of from their own histories. Rather than pontificating about how Britain invented the modern era, wouldn’t it have been better to present a vision of what Britain’s place in the modern world could or should be? Except we don’t have such a vision, which was my point.

      Comment by David — 29 July 2012 @ 7.36 am | Reply

      • Criticising a programme (or anything else) for not having been what you would have preferred it to be is pure self-indulgence.

        Comment by Brian Barder — 29 July 2012 @ 9.30 am

      • Now who’s being churlish? How about responding to the substance of my critique, rather than the fact of it?

        Comment by David — 29 July 2012 @ 4.44 pm

  3. I was quite surprised by the inclusion of “Flower of Scotland” as the Scottish anthem and the choice of the verse which talks about sending King Edward II of England home to, “think again”. It’s a line in the song celebrating the defeat of the invading English to secure Scottish independence for another 400 years. There’s another line in the song about how Scotland can, “be a nation again”.

    As a song in an event celebrating Britishness it stood out like a sore thumb. The organisers didn’t seem understand its significance to many nationalist Scots.

    Comment by DougtheDug — 28 July 2012 @ 7.15 pm | Reply

  4. Some twaddle in this article especially regarding the English (agaiin). There is no evidence that the English are any more violent as a society than the rest of the world. Indeed the riots of last year, it can be argued, were mainly carried out by the ‘Bringlish’ – multicultural generation many of whom would not know the difference between British and English. Sadly Danny Boyle has either slipped into this mindset (or was politically directed to). Did anyone else notice that there were 3 on screen captions, identifying N I, Scotland and Wales – but not for England – a deliberate attempt to obfuscate the entity called England (i.e. the Establishment promotes ‘Bringlish’ to surpress the English identity). Sorry Danny, you let us down there.mate.

    Comment by Dan Langfen — 29 July 2012 @ 7.19 am | Reply

    • I agree there’s no evidence the English are any more violent than any other country. But we have a worldwide reputation for violence, which last summer’s riots confirmed. I just had a sense that the violence of the English, and British, past was just another of the gigantic elephants in the stadium. I agree also that the rioters had / have little sense of their Englishness, and I see this as one of the reasons why they rioted: lack of pride in their country and in themselves as valued members of it. And no, I didn’t notice the thing with the captions. As you say, typical establishment suppression of English identity.

      Comment by David — 29 July 2012 @ 7.42 am | Reply

    • What nonsense! The only captions were to identify where the children’s choirs were and which nation’s song (effectively anthem) was being sung. Most of the rest of the programme referred to the UK as a whole: how would you have captioned that? The idea that Boyle was “directed” to “obfuscate the entity called England”, or that he did so “deliberately”, or indeed that he did it at all (whatever “it” is supposed to be) is pure paranoia. Truly, this is desperate stuff.

      Comment by Brian Barder — 29 July 2012 @ 9.42 am | Reply

      • It’s not paranoia when everyone (or in this case the UK establishment) really is out to get you. You might not see it Brian but I do. There is a steady drip of anti Englishness from the UK establishment from the trivial issue of English produce being presented as British produce (whilst Scottish produce is proudly displayed as such) in supermarket packaging to the more serious such as the way the UK media refuses to report accurately on English issues or the way the English have been denied any consultation on devolution to England. I’m not sure it’s a conspiracy though as conspiracy assumes competence. It’s possibly more a matter of those in establishment power wanting to keep it that way – they see Englishness as a direct threat to their own positions.

        Comment by Wyrdtimes (@Wyrdtimes) — 29 July 2012 @ 10.39 am

  5. Brian, that’s the point, there was a British Choir in the stadium,then three other Choirs for the Celtic UK nations (with on screen captions), There should have been an English choir at say at Stonehenge or Chatsworth. This was obfuscation as practiced regularly on news channels. But no the stadium choir was deemed to be Bringlish, an overlay of British/English further cementing UK establishment lie that the UK is made up of British, N Irish, Welsh and Scots. !0 years ago England was probably 95% Bringlish, now I’d estimate more than half of people in England are identifiying themselves as English first despite the establishment propaganda,( led by the Labour Party in particular and the BBC) . Remove your Union Flag tinted glasses, and look at what is really happening,

    Comment by Dan Langfen — 29 July 2012 @ 7.23 pm | Reply

    • More nonsense. “There should have been an English choir…”! According to what rule-book? This was not a national choral festival, nor a political party broadcast bound by some arcane laws requiring “balance”. It was a celebration of our multifaceted society in all parts of our country and it succeeded brilliantly: and it was a feature of an event called London 2012, taking place in London. Your obsessive antithesis between English and British is neurotic. The vast majority of us in England are happy to be both — and also happy to be Europeans, Londoners, Mancunians, or whatever. Fortunately none of these affiliations excludes any other. Some surveys suggest that a majority of recent immigrants and children of immigrants regard themselves primarily as British and only secondarily as English, so your speculation about the opposite being the case in England is probably wrong. I’m a great-grandson of immigrants, I have spent most of my life working for and representing Britain, often overseas, and so it’s natural and healthy that if I were to be forced to say which I regard as my primary loyalty I would say to Britain, but also secondarily to England, London, south London, and so forth. It’s an amusing game but not a very significant exercise, since as I say the two are not mutually exclusive. The English are also British, as are the Welsh and Northern Irish and Scots, whatever they “feel”, and whether they like it or not. Long may it remain so.

      I’m afraid that although we seem to be compatriots, we evidently speak different languages, so nothing is achieved by further discussion except a tiresome exchange of declarations. Good night!

      Comment by Brian Barder — 29 July 2012 @ 10.56 pm | Reply

      • If there was a “Scottish”, “Welsh” and “N. Ireland” choir, then there should have been an “English” choir if the UK was to be fairly represented.

        You say “Some surveys suggest that a majority of recent immigrants and children of immigrants regard themselves primarily as British and only secondarily as English”

        Can you cite any examples? The Dept of Justice commissioned a Poll in 2010 that found BMEs (Black, Minority Ethnic) identified with England more than they did Britain.

        Comment by TH43 — 30 July 2012 @ 3.01 pm

  6. To anyone interested,as Brian may still be in bed. I am the son of immigrants, ergo I am first generation English and was quite happily Bringlish until about 10 years ago. Now more nonsense..The Opening ceremony succeeded as entertainment but the undercurrent of its ok to be N Irish, Welsh, Scottish or British,was there consistent with the establishment and media treatment of England. (Todays news will confirm political interfernce with the content!) Many polls show a majority of English citizens are unhappy with the current devolution settlement and its effects and hence many agree in the rise in the English identity. The immigrants you refer to are a product of the establishment, Citizenship ceremonies in England are British ceremonies, in Scotland and Wales, guess what they have a Scottish and Welsh elemenst respectively. No surprise you get differences results. The Education Department (For England only but has removed the word England from it website) has changed history curriculum to emphasize British history (was English history. Yes Scottish history in Scotland!. However I predict that the 2011 census will show a majority of peoplle in England will have chosen English as the preferred nationality. (Bearing mind it took a sustained campaign to get the option of English on the form!) We’ll gloss over tuition fees, elderly health care, Barnett formula etc etc etc England, English people are being treated shabbily by the establishment and are disadvantaged Politically, Economically and Culturally because of fear, a perceived threat to the Union that has ironically only appeared since the Devolution experiment (to kill off the Nationalists n Scotland and Wales) backfired spectacularly. Labour are in trouble if England gets single nation representation, as the Celtic power base will be impotent, hence their often nasty and unpleasant stance on England. Their answer is to Balkanise, divide and conquer under the cynical pretense of caring for the North. What about the working class of the south??? The other lot are just muddle headed unionists. I will be happy to British as well as English when i am treated equally with the Scots, Welsh and N Irish and the currently dysfunctional political set fixed. Hows that for paranoia.

    Comment by Dan Langfen — 30 July 2012 @ 5.00 pm | Reply

    • Spot on Dan!

      Comment by TH43 — 31 July 2012 @ 10.23 am | Reply

  7. As a democratic English nationalist, I was also watching closely to see how they represented my country in the ceremony. I was actually struck by the fact that although it was a ‘British’ event that was meant to represent the whole UK, there was precious little to do with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Apart from the national songs, there was no highland dancing or bagpipes or a male-voice choir in the stadium singing ‘Cwm Rhondda.’ The whole thing was very anglo-centric and even the bucolic opening scene seemed to be more evocative of rural England than the UK as a whole. I agree that it would have been nice to have the caption ‘England’ when the choir sang ‘Jerusalem’ but I suppose it was unnecessary considering that the whole world knew that the choir in the stadium was in England and that the hymn itself mentioned England.

    What also struck me is how much of what people think of as ‘traditionally British’ is actually English. When most people imagine ‘British culture’ they conjure up images that are firmly rooted in England. In many ways ‘Britain’ is a euphemism for England and it’s no wonder the Scots and Welsh don’t want to sing the ‘British’ national anthem when it has become the de-facto English anthem. I agree with much of what has been written above. The establishment are dead against allowing English nationalism and identity to flourish because they rightly assume that it will undermine the Union. Wales and Scotland are too small to realistically vote for full independence, but if the English wake up and demand independence from the UK then the Union will be in grave danger. The problem is that whilst a conflation of England and Britain may help bolster support for the UK amongst the English, it further supports the Celtic notion that British identity is Englishness by any other name. I sincerely hope that these Olympics are the last great hurrah for the British state.

    As for the comment above about the need to mark the ‘violence’ of the English or the darker chapters of our history, I was a bit bemused. Which other countries would have a bit of navel-gazing at what is supposed to be a celebration? Yes, we should be realistic about our country’s faults past and present, but we also should dwell on the positives. I have lived in many countries and have been impressed by the love for England and English culture there, something which is seen as classy and positive

    Comment by Ben A — 31 July 2012 @ 12.49 pm | Reply

    • Thanks for this thoughtful comment, Ben. Re my remarks about the violence of the English, I’m pointing to it as something that’s part of our overseas reputation and as something of an elephant in the room one year on from the riots. But I don’t think the English are any more violent than any other people. That said, if part of the show had tried to acknowledge this point, it could justifiably have been accused of racism, as it was a British event, and Britophiles are for ever accusing English people of negative characteristics such as violence and xenophobia. All the same, some acknowledgement of violent aspects of British, as opposed to English, history, such as the Empire and slavery wouldn’t have gone amiss amid all the celebration of the positive achievements of the Victorian era.

      Comment by David — 31 July 2012 @ 5.16 pm | Reply

      • I’m not sure why you’re so insistent that this was a ‘London’ event rather than a ‘British’ one. The fact that the opening ceremony was very much a celebration of ‘Britain’ rather than just London, the attempt to generate interest and support across the whole UK etc. showed that it was meant to embody the whole of the UK. Danny Boyle said as much when interviewed on the subject.

        As for England being a victim, the problem is that our English identity is not officially recognised in the same way as that of the other home nations are. We are force fed this ‘Britishness’ and have few ‘English’ institutions to call our own, only British ones. All Westminster MPs act solely in the interests of the UK, not in those of England. Nobody stops to consider that these might diverge at times. England needs its own voice and it needs to be recognised as a proper nation.

        Comment by Ben A — 12 August 2012 @ 4.30 pm

    • I promised myself not to contribute any more to this arid debate, but I can’t resist pointing out that there is no basis for claiming that “it [the Olympic Games opening ceremony] was a ‘British’ event that was meant [meant by whom? — BLB] to represent the whole UK”. The event is a *London* event, “London 2012”, and any celebration in the opening ceremony of other parts of the UK besides London should be regarded as a bonus. Obsessive whingeing about English versus British is wholly irrelevant. Since England is the richest, most prosperous, biggest and most populous of the UK’s four nations, and the one that has dominated the other three for centuries, for better or worse, it’s also unseemly and insensitive to try implausibly to represent England as some kind of victim.

      Comment by Brian Barder — 2 August 2012 @ 11.20 am | Reply

      • The event is a *London* event, “London 2012″

        That’d be England then.

        Comment by TH43 — 2 August 2012 @ 12.07 pm

      • No, not England: London.

        Comment by Brian Barder — 2 August 2012 @ 3.07 pm

      • Sorry, I assumed it was the London that is the capital of England, in England and therefore English.

        Comment by TH43 — 2 August 2012 @ 3.20 pm

      • If you can’t tell the difference between London (which by the way is the capital of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) and England, I’m afraid I can’t help you. Here’s a clue: the Olympic Games 2012 were awarded to London (not to England and not to Great Britain and not to the UK), they are called ‘London 2012’, and they are going on right now. In London.

        End of story, as far as I’m concerned. Bye!

        Comment by Brian Barder — 2 August 2012 @ 3.29 pm

  8. The point is this was a SHOW to start the Olympics. There is no need to read too much into it. Certainly, it was visually stunning and pleasing to the ear. That is the point. Celebrate it.

    Comment by john — 21 August 2012 @ 8.53 pm | Reply

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