William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Olympic opening: More Little Britain than Great Britain

Glorious traditions, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder. When some chinless member of the British aristocracy was expounding on the ‘glorious traditions’ of the Royal Navy, the riposte – often incorrectly attributed to Winston Churchill, once First Lord of the Admiralty – was, ‘What glorious traditions? The traditions of the Royal Navy are rum, sodomy and the lash.’

And so, too, with the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, themed as ‘Isles of Wonder’.??

The British media hailed the ceremony variously as ‘breathtaking … brilliant … delightfully, barmily British’. That, too, was the line echoed dutifully in most Anglophone newspapers around the world.

This glowing positivism has much to do with the global pervasiveness of syndicated copy. Many drew on the likes of The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail for their assessments, rather than having their own writers and critics.

But although spectacular in parts, the opening wasn’t wondrous at all. It was self-indulgent, historically misshapen, and politically correct to the point of absurdity – really, how many black captains of industry were there during the industrial revolution? Danny Boyle, creator of the extravaganza, would have us believe about 20%.

And lets add that to the non-Anglophone viewer it was obscure to the point of incomprehensibility. Brunel, tunnel engineer, as the nation’s major historical figure? Coronation Street as the epitome of British television drama? It was a gallon of allusions, tunes and visual snippets poured into a pint pot.

There is a plethora of statesmen, libertarians, and outstanding scientific and medical innovators that Boyle had to choose among but ignored. Even if one pretends British history moved straight from the maypole to the Victorian industrial mills, why not Robert Stephenson, of steam locomotive fame? Or James Hargreaves, inventor of the Spinning Jenny?

That, though, is to quibble about minor issues. What was unforgivable about the London Olympic ceremony was its massive intellectual dishonesty, its pretence that Britain’s most abiding legacy to many of the billions around the world who watched the spectacle – that is the legacy of exploration, annexation and empire – didn’t happen.

The Chinese glossed over the unattractive, repressive, parts of their history in 2008’s Beijing ceremony, over which many, especially the British media, were correctly scathing. It makes the lack of critical media interrogation regarding London all the more pathetic.

At its heyday the British Empire, the largest ever, covered a quarter of the world’s land mass and included a quarter of its people. When one includes the United States, which shrugged off the British embrace, as well as countries like Sudan and China, which eluded it, the enormous effect that the British have had on the modern world becomes apparent.

British imperialism was not exactly a benign experience for those at the sharp end of it. The British were enthusiastic slavers and it was also they who against the Boers invented concentration camps and a scorched earth policy, coming close to ethnic cleansing.

Nor was that nastiness a historical blip. These were the very same techniques that the British used half a century later in Kenya during the Mau Mau insurrection, when almost 1.5m Kikuyu were detained in fortified camps and villages. Thousands were beaten to death, or died of malnutrition and disease.

That is presumably why Boyle stuck with safe laughs, in the form of an over-long slot for comic Rowan Atkinson and a parachuting Queen. Ha ha! What a hoot!

A pity. For though the past is past, it is fruitless to pretend it never happened. Despite British excesses, there is much to salute.

It was the British people who first turned their backs on slavery. It was an indomitable British campaigner, Emily Hobhouse, supported by Liberal leader Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who exposed the atrocities of the Her Majesty’s Lords Kitchener and Milner in the South African veld.

It was ordinary Brits who most among Westerners backed the anti-apartheid struggle. And it was dogged British lawyers who fought the system and official secrecy for the right of three elderly Kenyans to stand in a London court last week, to sue the Crown for damages done to them and their people half a century ago.

London’s opening celebration was oh, so correct and cosy. More Little Britain, than Great Britain.

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