At two days’ remove from the London Olympics opening ceremony, I’ve been able to form a clearer idea of what its underlying narrative was and why it appeals so strongly to lovers of all things British. In short, the ceremony enacted a journey from a pre-industrial, rural, geopolitically undefined Britain made up of the four historic nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland to a unified, modern, post-industrial, technological and urban British nation formed from the fusion of the historic nations together with the cultures and peoples that have immigrated to Britain in the post-war era.
Hence, although it was to some extent gratifying that the show began with the singing of the national anthems, or would-be national anthems, of the four historic nations, this places those nations firmly in the pre-modern past; whereas those same four nations were not represented as having any place or voice in the multi-ethnic Britain of today. [And at this point, I’ll just observe that Cornwall had no recognition whatsoever.] In other words, the ceremony dramatised the narrative of the new British nationalism, which sees ‘Britain’ as a civic nation to which all can belong on equal terms – those of an immigrant background alongside ‘native Britons’ – and which subsumes and traverses the supposedly more ethnic identities of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The face of the nation that the ceremony presented to the world was that of multi-ethnic, mono-national Britain, in contradistinction to a historically mono-ethnic (i.e. white) but multi-national Britain.
But is this multi-ethnic face merely skin-deep? Why, for instance, did Boyle not have the courage of his Briticist convictions, and make the girl and boy that hook up via a Facebook-type social network towards the end of the narrative section of the ceremony a white-black couple, instead of having the female part played by a black-white mixed-race girl and the male role taken by a black boy? Would it have been too shocking and unacceptable to the great British public, even today, to make a white girl getting together with a black boy the focal point of the whole multi-ethnic narrative? Or why not have a white man getting it on with a black girl – or is that too suggestive of the history of colonialism and slavery the ceremony refused to touch upon? How truly multi-ethnic is this brave new Britain if such a black and white beast with two backs is unpalatable to the viewing public?
This particular point touches upon the whole vacuity of the ceremony’s representation of modern Britain, with the multi-ethnic youth dancing in harmony to the fusion beats of grime music and the like. Merely one year ago, the multi-ethnic youth of areas such as Hackney – just down the road from the Olympic stadium – were rocking to a different beat as they smashed shop windows and burnt buildings to the ground. Which is the more authentic vision of contemporary Britain? Possibly both, or neither; or perhaps, one is the hope and the other is the experience. And the experience of many young English urbanites is a lack of meaningful opportunities and hope for work, education, or a better future for themselves and their families. The children may play – in the Olympics or in the disinhibited freedom of the riot – but how will they live? What are their prospects in an England denied recognition by the British state, and as citizens on the ethnic and economic margins of a marketised British society? Will the glittering spectacle of the Olympics, to which they are denied access, make them feel even more alienated from the opportunities and successes that seem reserved for a social elite: bankers, corporations, Olympians?
The opening ceremony identified Britain firmly with the Olympic ideal of nations fusing together as the Olympic rings emerged from the mills that made modern Britain. But is this ideal, in Britain’s case, a mere forgery: a fake, counterfeit image whose underlying reality is far more disunited, chaotic and ugly?