I have an embarrassing confession to make. Despite being a massive sports fan, I’m something of an Olympics sceptic. In our current financial circumstances, I think it’s very difficult to justify spending £9 billion or so on a two week sports event - and it’s even more difficult to justify concentrating nearly all the benefits on one area of London while expecting all Londoners to pay for it, particularly when people living in parts of Essex much closer to the Olympic Park haven’t been asked to pay a penny.
But having spent all that money, I obviously hope the Olympics are a success. With the opportunity to put the UK in the world’s shop window purported to be one of the main benefits, last night’s opening ceremony - put together by film director Danny Boyle - was particularly important.
It’s been criticised in some quarters for being too left wing. It certainly celebrated our National Health Service but that isn’t a left-wing position - although there are different views about how the NHS should be organised, virtually everyone in this country supports its founding principle that if you fall sick you shouldn’t have to worry about whether you can afford medical care. And the ceremony also celebrated the entrepreneurs who drove the Industrial Revolution and our armed forces, which might (equally inaccurately) be thought of as right-wing positions.
A fellow Conservative MP, Aidan Burley, tweeted that the opening ceremony was “leftie multi-cultural crap”. Now politics is a fairly tribal business - criticising your colleagues is very much frowned upon (many of you reading this blog would probably say that’s one of the things you don’t like about politics but nonetheless it’s one of the rules of the game). Aidan is entitled to his views on the merits of the opening ceremony - if we believe in diversity then we must respect the rights of people to hold different opinions to our own. But on this occasion I thought it was important that people didn’t get the impression that all Conservatives think multiculturalism is a) crap or b) left-wing so I replied pointing out that Londoners (I should have said most Londoners) are rather proud of the diversity of our city and there’s nothing left-wing about that. If by multiculturalism you mean breaking society up into ethnic groups that’s a bad thing but if, as the ceremony did, you mean celebrating the diversity of our city and country that’s surely a good thing? I know Aidan is a proud Brit: well even before post-war immigration Britishness - the union of English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish identities - was by definition multi-cultural.
I thought the ceremony did a wonderful job of telling our national story - our pastoral past, the Industrial Revolution, the campaign for democratic rights, the sacrifices of the war years, the development of the welfare state, post-war immigration and the huge contribution British science and culture have made to our world. Wouldn’t it be even more wonderful if we taught this story properly in our schools so that our young people knew where they are from and how their place in the story? So many politicians have struggled to define Britishness in their speeches - Danny Boyle did a far better job in this ceremony. The only thing that was missing, as Sunder Katwala has argued, was the story of Empire and Commonwealth.
There was some really funny moments too - James Bond collecting the Queen and the Mr Bean sketch particularly stand out. And there were two magical moments at the end - I loved the way the torch was built of lots of individual national flames (what a fantastic bit of British engineering too) and, given the theme of inspiring the next generation, I also loved the idea of Sir Steve Redgrave passing the torch to a group of talented young athletes.
Danny Boyle and everyone involved did us proud. Let’s hope we can sustain it for the next two weeks and show the world the best this country has to offer.