- Professor of History Paul Ward, co-Director of the University’s Academy for British and Irish Studies, appraises the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games and what it had to say about national identity.
In 1940 George Orwell asked, ‘Are there really such things as nations? Are we not forty-six million individuals, all different? And the diversity of it, the chaos!’ Danny Boyle and his writing team, including Coronation Street writer Frank Cottrell Boyce, are in the line of succession from Orwell, for he presented a version of national identity that worked on the assumption that Britain was ‘like a family with the wrong members in control’. Orwell wrote, ‘Almost entirely, we are governed by the rich, and by people who step into positions of command by right of birth’. With the current Prime Minister educated at Eton and more than half of Conservative MPs educated at private schools, there is clearly still truth in Orwell’s observation. Boyle and Cottrell Boyce produced a montage that implicitly drew attention to Britain’s current political differences and the continuing threat to the Welfare State version of Britishness.
Danny Boyle managed to tell the national story in such a way that it made sense of and indeed celebrated Britain’s diversity. It acknowledged that Team GB represents more than just England, so Welsh Olympic legend Lynn Davies proclaimed the London 2012 opening ceremony the ‘best ever’ and Aberdeen-born Emeli Sandes’s singing of Abide with Me was hailed by the Daily Record as ‘one of the show-stopping highlights of the spectacular ceremony’. It included the Suffragettes, hunger marchers, and the SS Empire Windrush. That one Tory MP called it ‘leftie multicultural crap’ suggests that it managed to accommodate Britain’s ethnic diversity as well. There was something for everyone. It was imbued with a sense of humour and self-deprecation, considered by many as the most solid of British virtues. It brought together an array of icons of Britishness including David Beckham, James Bond, the Queen, the countryside and the Industrial Revolution. It celebrated Great Ormond Street Hospital and the National Health Service. It drew support from surprising quarters, so Boris Johnson praised it by saying: ‘It wasn’t just Big Ben and Beefeaters and red buses and stuff. It was actually the truth about this country in the last two or three hundred years told in a big, dynamic way’.
Some were critical of this focus on the Britishness of the welfare state. Andrew Gilligan in The Telegraph decided that ‘The NHS segment in particular underlined how surprisingly parochial this ceremony was. The idea of the Health Service as a beacon for the world is, bluntly, a national self-delusion’. Some wanted to see more triumphalist history, including Nelson and Winston Churchill. But Danny Boyle, known for the films Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting, provided a left-of-centre and generous celebration of diversity and unity, which emphasised ordinary people’s contribution to and expectations of the nation.