Sunday, 3 June 2012

No country for sceptics.

This week I intend to commit heresy; in fact I’m going to commit it twice. Here we go then, the Jubilee leaves me cold and I am already bored to distraction by the Olympics.

There, I fee so much better now I’ve got that off my chest. Before someone bustles up to plonk me on a handily placed Jubilee pyre and set it alight with one of those terminally kitsch Olympic torches I’d like to explain why.

Its not that I can’t see that the Olympics promise to be an impressive sporting spectacle and I want Team GB to win a chest full of medals as much as any other couch potato, I just can’t help but feel the whole event has been fatally compromised by rampant commercialism. That and the huge weight of cost and inconvenience it has heaped upon London as the host city and on British taxpayers in general.

What really sticks in my craw though is the insufferably pomposity surrounding the whole miserable farrago. There is no better example of this that the absurd circus of the torch relay, from the Carry On Up the Acropolis style antics of the lighting ceremony to the idea that having the torch visit your town is a sort of semi-mystical experience.

Whenever I see news footage of some local worthy trundling along holding their torch aloft and wearing a tacky white shell suit I can’t help looking past the cheering crowds to the boarded up shops and thinking that the torch is probably being kept alight by burning bundles of fifty pound notes. Where is the Olympic legacy for communities that are struggling to keep their heads above water whilst the politicians tip billions of pounds into the gaping maw of the games?

There will be more cheering crowds for the Jubilee this weekend, along, I suspect, with more flags and more cynical fakery. Sometimes I wonder just what people are cheering at such events, membership of a ‘theme park Britain’ that we all know doesn’t really exist perhaps?

To me it seems to be symptomatic of what you might call the ‘British delusion’, the idea that we are still a major power instead of a broke island bobbing about somewhere between Europe and the US that lost its sense of purpose along with its empire. Such feelings certainly have little to do with patriotism, at least not as I understand it anyway, which as always been as celebrating what ‘we’ can do through working together rather than telling ‘them’ how wonderful we think they are just for being there.

Both the Olympics and the Jubilee seem, to me, to have more than a hint of ‘bread and circuses’ about them. We can put together a thousand strong flotilla of boats to chug along the Thames for the Jubilee, but nobody either in business of politics has been able over the past thirty to prevent our manufacturing base from crumbling into dust. Which is the better sign of a country with a future, being able to put on a show for an afternoon of having a plan to create long term prosperity through making things the rest of the world wants to buy?

The saddest thing is that we the British public are willingly complicit in having a huge trick played on us by the political establishment. We seem to like the royals because, rather than despite, of the fact that they live in a fifties time-warp, this somehow appeals to our innate conservatism and sentimentality. Try as we might republicans, and I have been one since childhood, can’t get more than a cursory hearing, maybe because we tend to speak about the monarchy in terms of resentment at their privilege rather than talking about the opportunities offered by a more open and equal society.

The Olympics have provided a good smoke screen for politicians who have refused to face up to long standing problems. Turning the athlete’s village into affordable housing is to solving a national housing shortage what a single raindrop is to putting out a bush fire. The legacy of better health and more social cohesion supposedly created by increased participation in sports will by cancelled out by cash strapped councils across the country having to close sports centres and sack coaches to meet centrally imposed targets for spending cuts.

One day soon the bunting will have to some down, the bread will go stale and the circus will move on to somewhere else. The problems of our unequal and increasingly fractious society will still be there. All that will have changed is that we have less money with which to address them thanks to the hubris of our leaders. What will we do then, look for another expensive distraction, anyone for another bid to host the World Cup?

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