Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

29 July 2012

Further thoughts on the Olympics opening ceremony: a new British nationalism

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?

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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.

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