Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


The political legacy of the Games
La Stampa - August 5th 2012

We should probably thank Mitt Romney. Until the Republican candidate for America’s presidency came to London and made the mistake of publicly casting doubt on whether the British were really ready for the Olympics, and, even worse, whether we liked the idea of the Games at all, we did seem a bit grumpy and half-hearted at the prospect. But from that point on, it became a huge patriotic festival, a sign of unity in a usually argumentative land.

      It is a common reaction: most countries are happy to criticize themselves, but a lot less happier when foreigners do it to them. And it probably wasn’t Mitt Romney’s doing at all. But at the halfway point in these Games, the point is still striking and more than a little surprising. The event is proving a huge popular success, not just around the world but at home, and it has fueled a rather extraordinary mood of nationalism.

      One example is the BBC, which we Brits proudly and patriotically tend to think is the world’s best broadcasting company but also the most internationally minded. Yet on domestic TV at least it is reporting the Games as if there was only one country taking part: Britain. Top billing every day is given to the latest triumphs of “Team GB”, as it is known. The other 203 countries are barely noticed, however many world records their sportsmen and women break.

      This did in part reflect a slow start: it took several days before Team GB won its first gold medal. But it also reflects a big national investment in sport, as in fact in other forms of culture, during the past 10-15 years, by innovative financial means: instead of taxpayers’ money, which was the old source of sporting support, most has come from the privately run National Lottery and from private sponsorship.

      So just as Tate Modern has since its opening in 2000 become the world’s most successful contemporary arts museum on the basis primarily of private donations, Britain has suddenly started to over-perform in the Olympics for the same reason.

      We are all a bit nationalist when it comes to sport. But this year’s nationalism in Britain is is still quite surprising, for three reasons. One is that ours is not a very united country. At rugby and soccer we play as the separate nations of Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland, and in politics the Scots at least are agitating for independence.

      The second reason is that British, by which I really mean English, culture tends to celebrate losing, albeit bravely. We expect to lose on penalties to Italy or Germany. We don´t expect to win the Wimbledon tennis. We even expect to do badly at cricket.

      But there is a third, and more serious, reason. It is that exactly one year ago, on August 6th, London became engulfed in riots, a wave of arson, looting and violence that quickly spread to other cities. It ended after four or five days. But it led to a huge bout of national soul-searching about the divisions within our society between rich and poor, between the law-abiding and the law-breaking, between the contented and the alienated. No one felt then that Britain was a country at ease with itself, united in its Britishness.

      And then came Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony for the Games a week ago. It probably generated more of a shrug of the shoulders in the poorer parts of Tottenham, where last year’s riots began, just a kilometer or so from the Olympic Park, but certainly not a hostile reaction. In fact, Britons seemed pretty united in their pride about it: we thought it was a bit mad, a bit sentimental, very creative and had a stroke of genius in its inclusion of Queen Elizabeth and her cameo with James Bond.

      A nation that can be creative, can be serious, but can still laugh at itself: that is how the British like to see themselves, and the Queen’s participation encapsulated that perfectly.

      The next day, walking around the Olympic venue with the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, the Queen was heard to describe her appearance in the ceremony as “a bit of a laugh”. The man she was talking to will have loved that phrase. For amid the nationalist fervour, the enthusiasm for the whole event, and the general atmosphere of positive thinking even amid recession and great social inequality, there has been one big political beneficiary: Boris Johnson himself.

      The London mayor is a strange political creature. He is a member of the Conservative Party, but relishes criticizing his own government.  He seems very British and even Eurosceptic, and yet his grandfather was Turkish, his grandmother was Russian, and his father worked as an official in the European Commission in Brussels. He is far keener on immigration than most of his fellow Conservatives.

      He sounds, to British ears, as if he is a kind of caricature aristocrat, using language sometimes taken from children’s books of the 1930s, and yet is popular because he still communicates well with the public. They like his jokes, his optimism, his frankness, his sometimes reckless private life.

      In fact, in those characteristics he bears more than a slight resemblance to Silvio Berlusconi, a politician of which Mr Johnson once wrote an admiring profile when he was direttore of a right-wing weekly magazine, The Spectator. He lacks, of course, Mr Berlusconi’s other key strengths of money and media power. But what he is echoing above all is the constant desire to be positive.

      As a result, British political commentators have begun a debate about whether Mr Johnson could eventually become prime minister, even defeating the current Conservative Party leader and prime minister, David Cameron, in a party election. The consensus is that he won’t, because the British, especially the British who do not live in London, are too cynical and critical of their politicians to elect someone who tells jokes, even brilliant ones.

      Personally, I am not so sure. The Olympics have shown how much the British love a spectacle, and love to take part. This year we also celebrated the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s arrival on our throne, and that was a big, upbeat party too, despite traditionally bad English weather.

      In a big, international city like London, the Olympics are unlikely to leave a lasting mark. We will move on to other things, pretty quickly. But in national politics, and the national mood, a mark might be left. We are showing that we like to win, and that currently we like to listen to confident, positive leaders. Boris Johnson is going to be a man to watch.


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