How does an ex-imperial superpower now in deep decline represent itself to the world? How does one celebrate ‘Britishness’ without either projecting an openly offensive jingoism or satirizing the very notion? And how does one acknowledge Britain’s multicultural present while steering well clear of the entire colonial history and ongoing struggles which have shaped it? These appear to have been the questions haunting Danny Boyle, the British film director best-known for Slumdog Millionaire who was entrusted with directing the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony.
Parachuting royals aside, the eclectic ceremony with its theme of Britain’s 19th and 20th century history, was noted firstly for its visually impressive reconstruction of the Industrial Revolution, complete with William Blake, the uprooting of trees representing a pre-industrial rural idyll, and the strikingly choreographed emergence of an industrial working class which erects towering chimneys and ultimately smelts gigantic fiery Olympic rings. Secondly, virtually the centrepiece of the ceremony was a performance representing Britain’s post-1945 universal free healthcare system, the National Health Service. This had a particular resonance with the current onslaught on the National Health Service and the public sector as a whole by the Conservative-led coalition government and the popular resistance and protest it has generated, and was seen by some commentators in Britain as indicating a left-inspired or at least subversive flavour to the event.
Yet while the welfare state theme struck a chord, overall the Opening Ceremony represented one of several competing ruling class versions of ‘Britishness’, albeit not the one espoused by the current government. The narrative of the last two centuries of Britain’s history was marked by the absence of any indication of struggle or people’s organizing – bar fleeting appearances by the Depression-era Jarrow hunger marchers and the suffragette campaigners for women’s right to vote. The East End, the historic working class migrant area on whose still-deprived extension the Olympic stadium has been built under highly exploitative conditions, was represented by faux-traditional Pearly Kings and Queens, not for example by the celebrated battle of Cable Street where the people defeated fascist thugs.
Most strikingly, the entire history of slavery and colonialism which made the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath possible was miraculously erased from the record. British people of African, Caribbean and South Asian origin were present in all the scenes of the ceremony performance, among those playing the top-hatted capitalists, as well as the workers, but their different histories and perspectives was never acknowledged – a fleeting reference to the passengers of the Windrush, the ship which brought the first post-War immigrants from the Caribbean, was thus devoid of all context. Ultimately, this was closest to the version of Britishness promoted by the previous New Labour governments, who scrapped multicultural policies in favour of ‘community cohesion’, the slogan under which anti-Muslim racism reached new heights, while leading Britain into Afghanistan and Iraq as junior partners in 21st century imperialist war. Under ‘community cohesion’ policies, ‘Britishness’ could be extended to those who were not white, but only on condition that they demonstrated their allegiance to Britain’s ongoing imperial project.
But even this was clearly not ‘British’ enough for the current government, which as the crisis deepens is now daily trying to cover up the bankruptcy of its neoliberal model and deflect popular anger with open attacks on black and ethnic minority people and migrants. The world may have been watching, but for PM David Cameron the Olympics was just another opportunity for whipping up domestic racism, as evidenced by his extraordinary allegation that children were spending time being taught ‘Bollywood dancing’ instead of sports in British schools and this could hold back the performance of British athletes!