Originally self-published in Medium: https://medium.com/@tommyleehodgson/fetishising-london-2012-coalition-era-unity-in-the-popular-liberal-imagination-5c13a9393526
The 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony was undoubtedly a tour de force of entertainment, made possible by a range of people including director Danny Boyle, who managed to put on a spectacular show which enthralled and inspired many. There was even political commentary embedded in parts, which, though liberal and woolly at the best of times, had the useful effect of exposing the most die-hard of xenophobic Conservatives, and bleakly reminding us that they still existed and, more crucially, held important positions in government. However, recent references to the Olympics have overstated the national unity of the time that this event represented. The reality of the build-up to, aftermath of and indeed execution of the Olympic opening ceremony, as well as the games themselves, evokes a ‘harsher’ yet more nuanced understanding – one which today’s polarisations are firmly rooted in.
In times of cynicism, those in distress look to the past, not to learn from it but to recreate it as the ideal. The nostalgia preferences of more than a few commentators have informed an image of the 2012 Olympics as near-sublime, a tribute to liberal Britain, or even ‘the antithesis of Brexit’. In an article in The Guardian, Dawn Foster outlined the false premise that ‘the 2012 London Olympic ceremony represented an idyllic high-point of culture and unity in the UK’, and further noted that this myth conveniently excuses the brutality of Coalition austerity. The fevered reaction to this part of Foster’s piece, not to her much larger point about the wrecking behaviour of Tom Watson within the Labour Party, has rather proved the sanctity of the Olympic ceremony as a symbol of untarnished liberal Britain. Those woeful of current discourse and with an interest in harking back to simpler political dynamics – where the three main parties had very similar commitments to the ‘necessary austerity’ narrative – do despair at grounded critiques of the 2012 London Olympics and its opening ceremony as a cultural event. This challenges the notion that there exists a past calmness and ‘sanity’ to go back to – hence their drive to reconstruct a sporting event as an everlasting symbol of better times.
How Foster arrived at such a critique of the Olympic legacy is apparent through looking at a variety of sources. From J.K Rowling to Change UK, the liberal discourse around London 2012 has clearly been one of selective nostalgia. Rowling’s 2018 book Lethal White, published under her pseudonym Robert Galbraith, was set amid the 2012 Olympics, described by one reviewer as “that last precarious moment of national unity”. The discourse is apparent, somehow even more so, in the way (former) Change UK MP Chuka Umunna gushingly referenced it multiple times in a 2019 Progressive Centre pamphlet, describing the opening ceremony as a ‘vision’ to show the world we are a country ‘proud of what we have become – open, humourous, decent, confident and modern.’ Under the subtitle ‘What are progressives for?’, Umunna is clearly evoking the image of the opening ceremony as a progressive benchmark to aim for, and directly counter-imposing it against the current state of society.
This disingenuous comparison dually elevates 2012 as a simpler and more tolerant time, thereby ignoring the multitude of problems residual from New Labour’s dying embers and the cruel savagery already enacted by the Coalition government, and makes the case that today’s endemic divisions over Brexit sprang out of nowhere in 2016, not having deep roots over the last 40 years at least. Thus, the paradox of fetishising the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony: it both represents a ‘normal’ time in the mind of such centrists and liberals – i.e. a time when the status quo was not only widely accepted but celebrated – and was extraordinary in the way it united the country, of especial importance due to what was to come four years later.
Umunna later in the same pamphlet stated that the opening ceremony captured our ‘complicated, progressive nation’. Yet, to anyone who looks back at 2012 without the allure of veneration, there were notable voices absent from being included in the event. The exclusionary nature of the Olympic games was readily apparent as preparations took place. What of the residents of Newham, many of whom were displaced and forced to reckon with regeneration and the incoming swathes of gentrification? ‘The Olympics legacy is for others, not for them.’ These were ‘complications’ which are not included in Umunna and others’ narrative of the Olympics, as the displacement of people to make way for this project was clearly not alluded to in any part of the ceremony. If it was brought up more as part of the Olympic legacy, surely it would not be as revered in any serious manner.
Another complication not often included in prevailing narratives was the heightened security surrounding the games, including deployment of the military due to the incompetence of private company G4S (who still receive government contracts), flying helicopters with snipers on board above the grounds, and granting the police controversial new powers, such as increased stop and search with no probable cause and the ability to enter local residents’ homes to tear down political posters. What of increased brothel raids in the area and deliberate efforts to ‘sweep’ homeless people off the streets of East London to elsewhere? What about the rest of the country, who saw little-to-no benefit or investment as a result of the London-centric event? With its location and at £2012 a ticket (I’m sure those on minimum wage appreciated the sentiment with this price choice), it was hardly an open-to-all event which encouraged diverse attendance from across the country, as Jude Wanga poignantly wrote. If anything, the heightened security and limitations of the Olympics made it a particular signifier of disunity and disparity between the haves and have-nots. Thus, it is perhaps unsurprising that many politicians and commentators have remembered only a serene version of the games which presumably reflects the sanitised understanding they had at the time, if they willingly or unwillingly ignored the very real scandals and controversies surrounding the Olympics, and limitations on who could continue to live their lives undisturbed in Newham, let alone attend the opening ceremony.
By summer 2012 - on the backdrop of Olympic preparation - some of the most damaging and ideologically fraught policies of the Coalition Government were already in full effect including, but not limited to, Theresa May as Home Secretary giving her infamous ‘Hostile Environment speech’ (two months before the opening ceremony which laid tribute to the Windrush generation), the crackdown on civil liberties following the 2011 London riots (itself being just a year before should give an indication how farfetched the liberal myth of unity in 2012 really is), benefit sanctions, arrests of protestors, increased use of food banks (yes it had already started exploding then) and deep austerity cuts. George Osborne was famously and righteously booed at the Paralympics, demonstrating the already-established resentment against a Chancellor determined to rip everything from the most vulnerable in our society. The fact that £9 billion had been spent on this lavish event, in just the beginnings of ‘tightening our belts’ following the recession, already proved the ideological choice that austerity was, and continues to be.
And yet, commentators such as Emma Burnell have stated that the ceremony felt like the ‘triumph’ of the liberal moment because many of the successes of the Labour government had not yet been dismantled by 2012. It requires a very accommodating understanding of the policies that the Coalition enacted in their first two years in power, and indeed of New Labour ‘triumphs’, to come to this conclusion. Similarly, Ian Dunt wrote in 2016 that the opening ceremony felt like ‘a recognition of what we’d become, in fact, it was our high water mark.’ Does the Chancellor having the audacity to present medals at the Paralympic Games after his cuts depriving disabled people of food and dignity, and him being booed in return, feel like our ‘high water mark’? This is the kind of disconnect and rosy nostalgia which makes any serious political discourse seem almost futile. Even the most celebrated parts of the ceremony had ideological opposition from the establishment itself, such as the active government in power trying to axe the pro-NHS segment and the complete absence of recognition of Britain’s colonial past in relation to the segment on immigration.
Though a politically ludicrous and beyond-parody figure, actor Eddie Marsan summed up the function of the London Olympics as a re-imagined gasp of a fantastical liberal past when, in August 2018, he tweeted: ‘If I was running a GE campaign for a new centrist party, the Party political broadcast would jus be a re run of the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, with the words “Make Britain Great Again” at the end.’ If appeals to fascist rhetoric and the fantasy of a perfect age doesn’t perfectly illustrate the mythic status of London 2012, then surely nothing will. If it is worth including the ceremony and event in political discourse at all, it needs to include the fact that it took place against a backdrop of discontent, an already-breaking country pushed to the edge, through austerity, income inequality and an undemocratic, toxic press, which had long sewn the seeds of the 2016 referendum result. Thus, Britain in 2012 was not a ‘very different place’ from Britain in 2016 – just because the divisions of a society were more under wraps (also arguable) than during and after a inflammatory referendum, does not mean they did not exist.
This yearning is a rewriting of history – it simplifies UK political discourse and ignores a host of ‘warning signs’ for the referendum, such as the collapse of financial capital and the ensuing recession, the results of the 2010 GE, the political choice of austerity and the conduct of the 2014 Scottish Referendum, not even mentioning the 40 years of neoliberal reforms which altered British society in profound ways. Even describing just the ceremony itself as ‘the antithesis of Brexit in nearly every conceivable way’ ignores the deep structural inequality in this country which informed the conduct of the ceremony, its security, its price tag, who it included and who it shunned, in favour of a popular liberal narrative. Perhaps liberals remember the ceremony so fondly because it did sanitise the worst excesses of New Labour authoritarianism and Coalition austerity, as Paddy Bettington – who worked on the production crew of the opening ceremony – wrote, it ‘concealed the politics of the time’. Is it possible that centrists need that ideal from the past as an end point to the vacuousness of their technocratic milquetoast ideology – demonstrated perfectly by the dismal showing of Change UK in recent European elections and their subsequent splintering and withering? The opening ceremony can and should be celebrated as a success of British entertainment and art, but its legacy will never be the valorised ideal that centrists so desperately crave in a new reality where the status quo has been thrown into disarray, for better or worse.