From the opening ceremony of the London Olympics to the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, it’s been a tumultuous 10 years in UK society and politics.
It’s fortuitous that there’s been an international multi-sports event taking place in Britain exactly a decade on from the London Olympics.
It’s not just that a 10-year time frame appeals to tidy minds and knock-off historians. So much has happened in the intervening years, and much of it was telegraphed on that balmy July night when Danny Boyle’s extravaganza opened the London games, if only we’d clocked the correct markers.
It’s easy to forget now but, in the days before the London Olympics began, many were braced for catastrophe. G4S had just done a bunk on the security contract and the phrase “the army had to be drafted in” is rarely attached to good news.
Then, Kenneth Branagh stoated about the stadium in a stovepipe hat and everything fell into place.
The opening ceremony seemed to project a nation confident of its place in the world, proud of its heritage, aware that its strength was rooted in diversity, industry and community, and keen to win the future.
Hindsight makes London opening ceremony look like a misfire
When Alex Salmond attempted to hijack Team GB by dubbing Scots competitors “Scolympians“, he was rightly ridiculed. He looked petty and out of touch, as Chris Hoy and Andy Murray’s gold medals were celebrated across the nation just as much as victory for Victoria Pendleton and Jessica Ennis.
And, yet, the decade since has been dominated by Salmond and those of his ilk – folk who are equal parts preposterous, divisive, sleazy. Referendums, populism, division have ensued.
London liked what it saw in the mirror held up by Danny Boyle, but many of those beyond the city limits felt they couldn’t get a look in, or that it didn’t reflect their lives. It turned out that the Tory MP who summed up the opening ceremony as “multicultural crap” spoke for England. Salmond’s suggestion that the Scots didn’t quit sit in Team GB had a wider appeal than many realised.
Hindsight makes that London opening ceremony look like a misfire. One section celebrated the UK’s role as the birthplace of the industrial revolution. Now we wrestle with the global warming unwittingly unleashed by the Victorians.
A decade later, the NHS is on its knees, despite saving the nation during our pandemic moment of need
The part paying homage to the NHS was supposed to insure that institution against the designs of those who would defund and degrade it. A decade later, the NHS is on its knees, despite saving the nation during our pandemic moment of need.
JK Rowling was cheered to the rafters when she stepped on stage, as Boyle imaginatively and perceptively zeroed in on the nation’s contribution to children’s literature. Now, she’d attract vociferous protests from trans rights activists for her stance on sex and gender.
Birmingham’s opening ceremony felt very different
Fundamentally, the London opening ceremony marked the triumph of the metropolitan elite. Everything since – the corrosion of the constitution, contempt for expertise, increasingly irrational foreign policy – is evidence of how hollow that apparent victory was.
The organisers welcomed the world to the UK. But, in fact, and as ever, they only really brought the visitors, the vibe and the money to London.
Where some saw the Olympics showcase all that’s good about the UK, in reality, it threw the issues that needed addressing into sharp relief – geographical inequality, complacency and self-satisfaction among the political class. Those who recognised this have owned the years since, exploiting those issues for electoral gain and, frankly, degrading the nation.
Consequently, Birmingham’s opening ceremony, while an excellent spectacle, felt very different.
Where London had the Queen parachute into the stadium alongside James Bond, Birmingham had Prince Charles tootle up behind the wheel of an Aston Martin. One Direction and George Michael closed London’s Olympics. Birmingham’s finale was Ozzy Osbourne, emerging out of a hole in the ground and held up by some sort of truss. Decline personified.
Let the national rampage end
Birmingham’s opening ceremony in particular felt like a rearguard action by a much-chastened metropolitan elite; an effort to convince both themselves and viewers across the globe that, whatever you may have heard about the UK recently, there are still grown-ups at large that can interpret our history rather than simply venerate statues, who value rather than vandalise the arts, and who understand that spectacle has merit beyond just providing distraction from the nefarious and the nonsensical.
The giant mechanical bull at the centre of Birmingham’s opening ceremony began its turn red-eyed, armour-plated, an apparent symbol of the anger and aggression that mars our politics and society right now.
It’s not always clear what’s going on in these things, but a woman seemed to charm him with a crystal, and now the bull is significantly more chill.
Hopefully, in another decade’s time, we’ll look back at that moment as a crucial symbol and a sign of what was to come – let the national rampage end and usher in a more docile decade.
James Millar is a political commentator, author and a former Westminster correspondent for The Sunday Post