This post was originally a guest column at The Practical Pinko.
Panem et circenses. When Juvenal coined his scathing phrase about Roman politicians, he inspired two thousand years of cynicism, of conspiracy theories, of scepticism. The master manipulators, seeking to distract from ideological failings, from corruption and drudgery, through gaudy entertainments and cheap bread.
Two millennia old it may be, but Juvenal’s hoary old phraseology got plenty of outings from Olympic-sceptics as the night of 29 July 2012 approached in London, and occasionally in the two remarkable weeks that followed. This was how our rulers, across party boundaries, would change the narrative. No more would we think about the pain of austerity, the injustice of cuts that make the worst off pay for the mistakes of the richest, the deadly spiral of rising youth unemployment, a continent teetering on the edge of yet another financial armageddon. Panem et circenses, but mainly circenses.
If any politician really believed that, they were cynics headed for disappointment. They will fail to reap any such reward. But the real cynicism in this case was, perhaps, not the politicians, but those whose opposition to London’s Games was that they would succeed as a distraction. That is to take a view of the electorate that is deeply patronising, that somehow the mere ordinary people can handle only one narrative in their mind. Swept away in a whirl of stadia and gold medals, we would forget all that has happened over the past years, and our fears for the future, rallying to the flag and to David Cameron.
We didn’t. Well, maybe we forgot briefly, as the sun beat down and the world fell in love with London, but there has been no ‘Olympic bounce’ for the government. No real respite for the teetering coalition. Yes, the media covered little but the Games, and yes, that pushed important issues both at home and abroad off the front page. But anyone who has lived through a British summer will know that the idea that governments fall or destinies shift due to what the media reports in the first two weeks of August is risible. We are an imperfect democracy, but we are not fools.
The problem for some, mainly but not exclusively on the left, is to become seen as miserabilists, trudging out the idea that a bit of fun, a bit of light, a bit of diversion is somehow wrong so long as people suffer poverty, unemployment or inequality. Criticise the Games, by all means – and there is much to criticise and question. But criticise them for their practice, not their fact. A left that believes in a role for an enabling state beyond being simply a nightwatchman should not see ‘bread and circuses’ as a motto of the cynical politician, rather as a rallying cry. Yes, we want government to ensure that no-one goes without the basics of a decent life, but so too do we want to see an active engagement in supporting the diversity of life, including culture and sport. And that means engaging with, supporting and – yes – spending money on events with mass, sweeping appeal. The crowds at the torch relays, the scramble for tickets, the TV viewing figures all show that the Games had that appeal.
Much has been written, and will continue to be written, about what the Games mean for London and Britain. It is one of those events so broad, so sweeping and so beyond the normal register of occurrences, that it provides space onto which everyone has been able to project their own viewpoint and ‘lessons learnt’. The comparisons between the Games and the 2011 riots, taking place a year to the day before, have been crudely drawn. But both have provided canvasses vast and blank enough for anyone to paint upon them.
There is no guarantee that anything will change as a result of the Games. The key facts of life, the economy and politics remain the same as they did on the morning of the 29th July. A thousand conflicting predictions of what happens next mean that most will be proved wrong. But there is that little glimmer of something, as yet intangible.
The danger of the Games is that they would become another soggy Jubilee. A few days of slightly introverted, slightly enforced festivity, based on flag and tradition. Enjoyed by many, but simply reinforcing what we are, where we are. And there has been no shortage of flags paraded over the past two weeks. But from the first astonishing moments of Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony, this had a feeling of something different. It was a very British event, yet also cosmopolitan. We waved flags for Team GB, but we welcomed the world to London as equals and peers.
That was the eye-opener. This was sport, it was competition, in theory between nations. Raucous and proud, but rarely partisan; and sometime simply about celebrating humanity. On Wednesday last week, a mainly British crowd packed out one of ExCel’s huge halls for a Greco-Roman wrestling final, a sport for which no British athlete had even entered. And yet they yelled and cheered the athletes on with as much passion as the groups of Iranians and Georgians in the crowd with home athletes to support. On the first Sunday, in those first few days when home advantage seemed a myth, the crowds lining Box Hill in lush Surrey loudly applauded the power of Dutch cyclist Marianne Vos as she broke from the pack on the gruelling climb, to put paid to gold hopes for Britain. And at the final event, the final medal, on a blistering Greenwich Sunday, there was probably not a Lithuanian in the crowd for the modern pentathlon. Yet there was nothing to distinguish between the stand-shaking cheer that greeted Laura Asadauskaite as she entered the stadium leading the final lap from that which, 10 seconds later, heralded the British athlete chasing her down. Nor for one moment did anyone in that crowd begrudge standing for Lietuva,Tėvyne mūsų rather than God Save The Queen. The idea, at a London Olympic event, of separating home and away supporters, would have been met with bemusement and laughter.
There isn’t really a word to describe the feeling that swept over Britain these past two weeks. This certainly wasn’t nationalism, at least not in its normal form. Nothing so ugly, or so small minded. We invited the world as equals, not to humiliate them. Nor was it patriotism, the famed ‘last refuge of the scoundrel’, in its normal form. Proud of our athletes, yet also in awe of others.
What it feels more like is a pride in a job well done, for its imperfections, and in difficult times. If there are parallels to be drawn, perhaps it is with the civic pride which gave Britain’s industrial cities their peculiar, culturally-rich, form of municipal socialism. Or perhaps with the unique form of pride and determination which inspired Britain’s greatest government to its heights of achievement after 1945. Not based on being better than others, but in being unique and proud of what we could achieve. In 2005, London won the Games by showcasing what is unique about the city. It did so again this summer, promoting our multiculturalism, our diversity, our organic city and yes, even our infrastructure. We celebrated what London and Britain is, not what we imagine it once was, and we didn’t seek too hard to hide the cracks. This pride in modernity is why so many backward-looking commentators have called these past two weeks so badly wrong. The less said about Aidan Burley MP the better, or indeed Piers Morgan’s reaction to the Opening Ceremony, thinking that it was a call to rebuild a British empire, or his petty insistence that emotionally and physically shattered athletes should belt out the national anthem. This wasn’t that sort of moment. And no, I don’t believe that one editorial in The Sun eulogising a migrant from Mogadishu as having defeated the far right means that paper and their bedfellows have turned their back on barely concealed race-baiting. But every little moment like that helps.
But maybe the greatest political potential from these Games lies in a reversal of the sense of managed national decline. A right-leaning perspective might relate that decline to the end of empire and the eclipsing of Britain as a global power. Whilst the debate about Britain’s global role is important, there is no need for it to be framed in such a way. But since the late 1960s, the unspoken consensus is that Britain can no longer do things, no longer make things, is no longer the nation that held the Festival of Britain or hosted the 1948 Olympics. And that has fed into our national psyche and narrowed our political horizons. We decided we could no longer afford to dream the big dreams of the scale that the post-war governments did; we trimmed our ambitions of freeing every woman, man and child from Beveridge’s five giants. We couldn’t have a world-class infrastructure. We were content to be the dirty man of Europe when it came to environmental protection. Our decline as a society was deemed to be inexorable, unstoppable. The job of government was to manage that as best it could.
Maybe, just maybe, that has changed a bit. The tale is that when a bid for the Olympics was first mooted, senior civil servants reacted with horror, protested that Britain could never make such a gigantic undertaking and advised in the strongest terms against it. The lesson, supposedly, of the story, is that they had been schooled in the era of managed decline. We couldn’t dream any more. It would be foolish and simplistic to try to turn this into a parable of the visionary Labour ministers and mayor rebelling against their stuck-in-the-mud mandarins. But if the decision to bid was based, in any little way, on a desire to show the ‘declinists’ that they were wrong, then it turned out to be fortuitous. No-one in the sun-lit economic uplands of 2003 could have predicted the Britain of 2012, yet the coming of the Games could not have been more timely.
In the weeks to come, and after the closing ceremony for the hopefully-as-successful Paralympics, we will need to talk about a lot of things. We still need to get to the bottom of the G4S debacle, and to unpick what that means for the future of public services; and there is a legacy to pursue, both nationally and locally in East London: the grand promises of affordable homes, active venues and real jobs need to actually be delivered. There will be moments of soul-searching and moments when we wonder if it really was all worth it.
But perhaps there will also be those moments too, when a glimpse of the towering Olympic Stadium and the memory of a wall of sound carrying Mo Farah to two gold medals; or hearing a train driver announce the next station and recalling the time he painstakingly translated it in his GCSE French simply to play his part in welcoming the world to London; perhaps those will be the moments when we will say – we aren’t better than anyone else, but we are capable of dreaming great dreams and achieving great things together – we can have bread, roses and circuses; we can set our sights higher. That would be a legacy.