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An opening ceremony as confused as the British psyche

“We know we’re great, we’re just not sure why.” For me those words sum up a generally strange, occasionally spectacular Olympic opening ceremony in London on Friday.

I guess the starting point for opening ceremonies is the desire to be bigger and deliver more prolonged thrills than the previous guy. And if good sex is partly about size and stamina, then Great Britain was always going to feel some performance anxiety, unable to put the might and financial muscle of the Chinese state into its show, especially in this age of austerity.

So how not to appear like a limp and cheap imitation? An obvious bet was to play on Britain’s unique quirky character. To make up for one’s lack of physical size by being the funny guy at the dinner table so to speak, with lots of cool stories to tell.

But what exactly is at the core of Cool Britannia’s uniqueness in the world today? The memory of empire? The National Health Service? The Queen? Queen? The Eurythmics and eighties pop? Multicultural love affairs conducted over social media networks?

Not convinced? Neither am I. And the problem for Danny Boyle was just that — Britain still thinks it’s great but it has no idea why. All the reasons to celebrate Britain’s history are shot through with flipsides we might rather forget, and which haunted the Boyle extravaganza on Friday.

William Blake’s green and pleasant land is a bit of a myth, given the dispossession of British peasants by the enclosures and taxes used to create a ruling landed aristocracy, which still exists today. The industrial revolution gave birth to fossil-fuel-driven greedy capitalism. And the chimneys belching forth smoke in the stadium made one feel as guilty to be British as the smarmy capitalists in their top hats. They reminded us of the British bankers from Barclays who recently ripped off the world’s poor by fixing interest rates in the bank’s favour.

The arrival of dark-skinned foreigners from the West Indies opened a can of worms about the British Empire. These were workers displaced from their home lands to offer blood sweat and tears to make Great Britain great. Later as the teams entered the stadium we were reminded of Britain’s expansionist past in the Union Jacks that still appeared littered across the flags of many smaller nations.

And as we celebrated the National Health Service (NHS), one could not help but be struck by the irony that Britain’s present government is dismantling that institution by firing thousands of doctors and nurses to fuel an economic doctrine popularised by Margaret Thatcher — that to strengthen our economy we need to stop caring for people.

So what else contributes to Britain’s greatness? The Queen, who would be fine as a fictional character from James Bond stories if it wasn’t for the fact that her household continues to cost taxpayers tens of millions a year. Millions the NHS could use.

OK Britain has produced some good music over the decades but I certainly wouldn’t invite Boyle to DJ at my party with his jumbled selection of British pop music genres — new romantic music from the 80s giving way to a bit of punk, rock and bhangra.

What’s left? Don’t talk to me about Britain’s values — democracy and fair play on the world stage. If anyone was suffering under that mythology, then we were finally put out of our misery when Britain went to war with Iraq on the basis of unproven assertions about weapons of mass destruction.

Maybe our sense of humour? OK I’ll concede that Mr Bean’s perverse dream about leading the race in Chariots of Fire was cool — but primarily because it takes the piss out of Britain’s delusions of grandeur. And that’s perhaps the punch line of the whole strange affair on Friday in east London. We are a nation who feel great, but if we’re not great we don’t care, cos we’re too busy having a laugh down the pub.

Ben Cashdan was born in the UK and lives in Johannesburg.