Wednesday, 8 August 2012

London 2012 understands what it means to be British

It’s taken years of debate, controversy, misunderstanding, the rise of the far right, and more debate, yet at last it feels as if there is a Britain and a Britishness in which we can all identify and feel comfortable with. Step forward London 2012, with surely the best answer yet in the “what it means to be British” saga. And all achieved without a politician in sight. Another reminder that sometimes it’s best to leave sport to grapple with the unanswerables, which it seems to be able to do, almost without trying.

The Olympics opening ceremony, over a week ago, provided a fitting tribute to the multi-ethnic, all-inclusive island, we have become. There was something for everyone. Sunder Katwala, director of the excellent, non-partisan, British Future think tank, in his terrific summary, said it delivered a message to the outside world, as well as one to ourselves:
"The need to project a story to the world offered a catalyst for a conversation that we have needed to have here, about how we want to think about who we are, how we live together, and what we share as modern Britons.

“What the show captured is that national pride also resides in our shared cultural experiences.”
Katwala went on to point out that a ‘show, don’t tell’ principle ran through the entire ceremony. Articulating Britishness is one thing but, ‘any authentic version depends on feeling it first:’

“Yet we should now see that the answer to the question ‘what makes you British?’ was staring us in the face all of the time.
“It is Britain that makes you British.”

And so we come to our heroic athletes. If that last statement applies to anyone, it’s to the so-called “Plastic Brits,” that now notorious, grubby, jibe. On being asked by one insensitive journalist if he would have preferred to have represented Somalia, moments after his extraordinary 10,000m win, Mo Farah gave the perfect riposte:
“Look mate, this is my country.

"This is where I grew up, this is where I started life. This is my country and when I put on my Great Britain vest I'm proud. I'm very proud.”
Only the most unfeeling, stingy, commentator could quibble with that. Britain’s Olympic team is enriched with talent, some of whose families hail from all corners of the globe. Some of the athletes were indeed born abroad. All have chosen to win medals for Great Britain.

The view that you have to be born and bred on these shores in order to count in the eyes of some as ‘100% pure Brit’ seems as outdated as it is preposterous. The interesting thing about Aidan Burley MP’s description of the opening ceremony as ‘leftie multi-cultural crap,’ (didn’t he really just mean ‘too many black faces?’) was how isolated it left him and how foolish it made him look. No doubt he’ll be disgusted at the sight of multicultural Britons gobbling up gold medals.
For decades now we’ve got used to the sight of sportsmen and women, from all backgrounds, representing Britain or its nations. Find me the last time an England starting XI was made up of just white footballers? Sport has adapted and moved with the times. England’s cricket team includes a sprinkling of South African born players who now reside in England and are as proud and as committed as any.

Some believe our Olympians are a triumph for British multiculturalism, an often confused and distorted term.  It would be more accurate to say it is a victory for diversity and immigration. The highly-respected social commentator Kenan Malik would have us believe this has been a victory for the ‘lived experience of diversity:’
“The experience of living in a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan is something to welcome and cherish. It is a case for cultural diversity, mass immigration, open borders and open minds.”

Rather than multiculturalism as a political process or ideology, which has sought to ‘manage diversity,’ by putting people into rigid cultural and ethnic boxes, without room for manoeuvre.  The Great Britain team is the coming together of multiple cultures under one unifying banner.
As many observers have already said, hopefully it is also a crushing blow to Scottish independence. I can’t imagine there would have been too many SNP members thrilled at the sights of Sir Chris Hoy and Andy Murray draped in the Union Flag. Powerful images indeed.

The Olympics is an excuse for a very British patriotism: one that isn’t jingoistic or vulgar, but proud yet equally humble. The interviews with our victorious, and near victorious, rowers, cyclists, swimmers and athletes, shows a group of the most delightful and unassuming people you could ever hope to hear, basking in the glory of having achieved greatness, or apologising needlessly for having let their country down.

What “Euro ’96” did for Englishness, London 2012 has done for Britishness. Once again sport has led the way. What it means to be British is being brilliantly played out before our eyes. 
This article was first published by Shifting Grounds on Wednesday 8th August 2012

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