Richard Woodall steps back a decade to weigh up Britain’s Olympic spirit.
Last week, London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, lit a ‘legacy flame’ at the Olympic Park in an attempt to reignite the fabled ‘spirit of 2012’ – that mythic year of national optimism and unity. The Conservative government is likewise hoping to preside over its own summer of love, with the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and the Commonwealth Games echoing the celebrations of ten years before. For both sides of the political establishment, this anniversary is a chance to take a holiday from the nightmare of the present day.
If their memories were longer, they might think twice before invoking the spectre of 2012. According to a Western misinterpretation of an ancient Mayan prophecy, the world was supposed to end on the 21 December of that year, with Earth torn to bits by a mysterious celestial calamity. Armageddon never arrived, but the apocalyptic rumours were an eerily tight fit with the national temper. 2012 in the UK was a year of widening gyres and dark revelations.
In the aftermath of the 2008 crash, two particularly noxious stories pervaded the national consciousness. The first was the coalition government’s austerity programme, a suite of spending cuts supposedly intended to balance the state budget in the wake of the financial crisis. The second was a growing sense of suspicion and resentment towards our political and economic elites, fuelled by an increasingly squalid procession of scandals over bankers’ bonuses, MPs’ expenses and political lobbying. These narratives unfolded in harness, each new exposé making the next round of cuts seem yet more cruel.
In 2012, both situations came to a head: this was the year that austerity policies kicked into gear, with a series of landmark bills taking chunks out of the post-war welfare settlement. And it also marked the climax of the most pungent scandal afflicting British public life in the early 2010s – the News International phone-hacking affair. It is not impossible to imagine a universe in which this constellation of legislation and official corruption led to an apocalyptic reckoning for the establishment which brought it about. But, as you and I both know, things went the other way.
The Cameron government’s legislative ambitions centred around a trifecta of bills targeting key areas of state provision: the Welfare Reform Act, the Health and Social Care Act and the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act. Systematically, these three bills shifted enormous portions of the social contract – financial support, medical treatment and legal representation – away from the country’s most vulnerable, in a manner that is yet to see any form of reversal. The effects have been deleterious: punitive benefits sanctions driving death and deprivation; a debt-racked health service uncomfortably foisted into free-marketeering; and a two-speed legal system where the right of defence is only acquirable by those with the funds to support it.
All of this was backdropped by the news, announced in April, that the UK had slid into a double-dip recession. Meanwhile, the national debt continued to rise, hitting £1 trillion at the start of the year. What was the point of all this hardship if it wasn’t even achieving its self-declared econometric goals? The government strove to counter the perception that it was waging class war by appealing to a sense of national solidarity in a time of shared suffering, invoking the good old Blitz spirit. However, it was increasingly obvious that, in this case, the bombs were coming from inside the house.
Nothing crystallised this sentiment more perfectly than the phone-hacking scandal, a story precision-engineered to confirm everyone’s worst suspicions about our political and media elites. This miserable saga centred on the allegation that journalists at the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid News of the World had been hiring private investigators to illegally intercept the answerphone messages of celebrities and other persons of interest.
What may have begun as a question of press ethics and privacy violations became, at its heart, a story about the inner workings of the British establishment – not so much a case of conspiracies cooked up in smoke-filled rooms as Sunday suppers in the Cotswolds, free tickets to the health spa and an endless daisy chain of convivial backscratching. Why was the Met so reluctant to fully investigate the hacking allegations despite sitting on a mountain of evidence from previous cases? Well, it might have had something to do with the network of close relationships that existed between senior coppers, top politicians and News International executives. Remember: Tony Blair was godfather to Rupert Murdoch’s daughter. David Cameron and former NotW editor Rebekah Brooks were horse-riding buddies. In 2010, Cameron appointed Andy Coulson, another former NotW chief, as his director of communications. In 2011, Met Commissioner Paul Stephenson resigned his post, chiefly because of suggestions that his association with yet another former NotW editor, Neil Wallis, might have compromised his attitude to the hacking investigation.
For a brief moment in the cataclysmic year of 2012, it looked as if a Götterdämmerung might finally be imminent. First came a string of high-profile resignations at News International, including James Murdoch, Brooks and, finally, on 22 July, the big dog Rupert himself. Next, a new suite of criminal charges for Brooks, Coulson and others. One by one they were trooped across our TV screens in disgrace, resigning or being fired, getting arrested, getting charged, eating crow. This was delicious enough in itself, but the wider implications were tantalising as well. After this, were people really going to keep believing that we were ‘all in this together’? Surely, something had to give.
At first glance, the London Olympics did not seem the best antidote for this atmosphere of national rancour. It’s easy to forget now, but an air of doom hung over the festivities at their outset, fuelled by bitterness over the corporate remodelling of east London, unease over draconian security measures and trademark displays of incompetence from private security firm G4S, who had to be relieved of several of their responsibilities at the eleventh hour. All of this was dispelled by Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony, a monumental four-hour spectacular which set itself the modest task of furnishing the UK with a revamped national mythology.
It was an astonishingly ambitious display, featuring hundreds of volunteer performers stomping their way around a set which transitioned from countryside idyll to charred Victorian wasteland, with colossal smokestacks thrusting up from the bowels of the stadium. Largely eschewing the traditional imperial symbolism, the show presented a soft-Blakean narrative in which the modern UK rises reborn from the apocalyptic fires of the Industrial Revolution and the world wars, emerging as a nation defined by a dynamic and inventive popular culture, a vibrant multicultural society and the institutions of a universalist welfare state – most of all the NHS. At a moment when the official rhetoric of national solidarity had started to wear extremely thin, Boyle’s extravaganza seemed to argue that it might still be possible to build something like a New Jerusalem on the exhausted soil of 21st-century Britain.
As massive feats of state propaganda go, the opening ceremony seemed at first to have been a remarkable success. It received almost universally positive notices throughout the British press, creating a wave of feelgood vibes which swept into the Games themselves. A largely smooth-running operation was powered by an army of cheerful volunteers, while sporting glory was delivered by a multi-ethnic cohort of likeable and charismatic athletes. Euphoria blended with relief, as for a few sweet weeks millions indulged the fantasy that they were living in a different country to the one they’d been trapped in for the rest of the year. It was, according to the Guardian, ‘a period where we looked in the mirror and were met by an unexpected reflection – one we rather liked.’ ‘Austerity, corruption and ineptitude,’ declared the Telegraph, ‘turn out not to be the main picture.’ ‘Bliss was it in that summer to be alive, but to be in London was very heaven,’ trilled the Times’ Simon Barnes, somewhat skating over the fact that the Wordsworth whose lines he had borrowed was recalling the early days of the French Revolution.
Of course, this whole spectacle is now loaded with ironic foreshadowing. Even as the press hailed the Olympic vision of a country united around values like diversity, generosity and aspiration, the institutions which might have supported such an inclusive society were being dismantled in the name of austerity. The culprits behind this political vandalism used the festivities to refurbish their tarnished reputations, none more avidly than then-Mayor of London Boris Johnson, who took advantage of his role in the pageant to elbow his way towards the national limelight.
The next decade was one of acrimonious political struggle, concluding in the victory of the same back-slapping kleptocracy which gave us phone hacking and austerity. Today’s attempts to resurrect the Olympian spirit feel rather redundant when it seems as if the UK is caught in a kind of time loop.
There’s David Cameron, apologising once more for unwittingly participating in a criminal conspiracy; oh no, the Met Commissioner has resigned again; and I’ll be damned if that isn’t Jimmy Savile, haunting the news cycle like one of those horror movie curses that can never be expunged, only passed on to the next victim. In retrospect, it is hideously too-perfect that the presiding deity of 2012’s summer of love was none other than our current Prime Minister, dangling from a zipline above Victoria Park, limply waving a brace of mini Union Jacks. The metaphor is too obvious to require further elucidation – let’s just leave it hanging.