It’s hard to tell what was more entertaining: the Olympic Ceremony itself, or the reactions. As the NHS was saved from an enormous mechanical Lord Voldemort by an army of Mary Poppinses and James Bond shared a parachute jump with a rich old lady, millions of tweets, facebook updates and baffled international reviews were frantically tapped out in response.
Many on the left were rightly delighted; here was a largely taxpayer-funded celebration of the NHS, CND, collectivism, suffragettes/ists and immigration that happily scolded the pampered bourgeoisie of the industrial revolution and empathised with its grubby working masses. Some on the right feigned delight – with Boris Johnson’s ‘hot tears of patriotic pride’ a particular highlight – but for worryingly representative closet fascists like Tory MP Aidan Burley, all that ‘lefty multi-cultural’ stuff was a bit too much.
There was one group who remained suspiciously silent on the matter. It is tempting to think that Scotland’s pro-independence Left are more capable of rising above the use of a sporting ceremony to make political points than their unionist counterparts, but it’s far more likely they were all just rather confused. The sheer anarchic joy of Danny Boyle’s ceremony was a testament to the collective endeavour of the thousands involved, as well as a tribute to great cooperative British movements that were placed at the very heart of the national story on show. It was a reminder to many pro-indy Scots that Britain isn’t all about Thatcherism, bankers and a tendency to lift foreign policy ideas from Richard the Lionheart, and for a second it did make the whole independence stramash seem a bit petty.
But of course, what did you expect? The ‘dark satanic mills’ of Boyle’s industrial revolution were soon engulfed in an all-singing, all-dancing tribute to technological and cultural revolution, steering well clear of more recent historical developments that remain too politically sensitive to portray in any negative light. There was never a hope in hell for Billy Bragg’s dream of a burning Thatcher effigy, nor was it likely that we’d see the British and American teams getting together to ‘bring democracy’ to their Iraqi and Afghan competitors, bathing in a fountain of specially-imported middle-eastern oil.
From the NHS and the trade union movement to the sixties and the World Wide Web; it was, ultimately, a recognition of those great changes in our history that have brought us together, not pulled us apart – with a sinister prologue of industrial upheaval to set the ball rolling. While the period of intense marketisation from the 1980s to the present day has led to a terrifying growth in inequality and all the social malaise that comes with it, we have retreated into the warm neon cocoon seen in the ceremony’s ‘digital age’, where the internet gives us the level playing field of socioeconomic anonymity and unrestricted access to overcome the stifling barriers of real life.
It was a clever and poignant opening ceremony, and showed the world an honest but nostalgic picture of a Britain that we should be proud of, not regardless of politics but because of it. The problem is, it’s hard to see much left of that country. The NHS we love is only ‘British’ in the most flexible sense of the word – protected in the north, cut up and outsourced to private contractors in the south, and hated by many of those in the governing Conservative Party. Decades of governments from both the major Westminster parties have refused to stand up to predatory consumption-driven capitalism, letting the cold amorality of markets seep into every corner of our social fabric, eroding the connections that helped us to build the institutions and cultural movements that were at the centre of Friday night’s festivities. Even the Olympics itself has fallen victim to this growing disunity, summed up by the astonishing introduction of special Olympic roads restricted only to corporate sponsors, athletes and anybody else rich enough to pay up.
In the midst of the collective euphoria on show, the sad reality is that we’re all drifting apart faster than ever. A Tory party that received just 36% of the vote in 2010 is enabled by Britain’s rotten democracy in their drive to accelerate this fragmentation, through prejudicial spending cuts, slashing taxes for the wealthy and proposals to introduce regional differentiation in public sector pay. The fact that the strongest resistance to the ripping up of Britain’s social contract comes from the alternative approaches of increasingly devolved national governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – themselves a symbol of growing UK disunity – is a sad reflection of Britain’s condition, but it is something that must be welcomed.
One of the most important things that can be taken away from both the inclusions and conspicuous exclusions of Boyle’s creation is that our celebrated British solidarity is faced with a bizarre paradox: We are becoming increasingly more of a ‘social union’ than a political one, and to preserve that solidarity it may be necessary to end our political unity. The social union of post-imperial Britain is built on the ideas of early 20th century liberal progressives and the labour movement, culminating in a comprehensive welfare state by mid-century. That welfare state is based as much on obligation and duty as it is on rights and entitlement; we want to help people because it’s right, not because we’re forced to. We like our freedom, but we want that freedom to be ensured or enabled by a caring and active state. Our political union, on the other hand, has a track record of forcing things on regionally specific groups who often don’t want or need them – deindustrialisation in the north and Wales, the early introduction of the poll tax in Scotland and heavy-handed British intervention in Northern Ireland. In short, we have shared ideals and values – as Boyle made so clear – but diverging ways of putting them into practice.
The rhetoric of the Yes campaign needs to detach the notion of ‘Britishness’ from the entity of the UK. Modern Britain is a collection of nations, held together by shared values of an enduring, elastic strength, while the UK is an awkward and inflexible political construct well past its sell-by date. Scotland, a country with an obvious determination to do our own thing, must be allowed to follow our own unique strain of Britishness outside of a broken political union; in doing so, we can show the 36% of Brits that voted for a governing party at Westminster who are pulling us apart that there is an alternative, and it can be so much better. For that, we need real political power that we can wield with our smaller, more representative democracy. If the union we should be proud of is the one we saw on Friday night – of collective action, compassion and mutual aid – we don’t need a distant parliament in London to do those things for us; nor do we need the Mary Poppinses of Westminster to float in on their umbrellas to protect Scotland’s NHS from the Tories. It’s time for an independent Scotland to show Britain how to be British again.