As I watched the disappointing closing ceremony of London 2012, I couldn’t get London Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ out of my mind. The song gracefully manages to juxtapose sweet saccharine nostalgia (“it’s such a perfect day, I’m glad I spent it with you”) with an undercurrent of reality and menace (“You Made Me Forget Myself, I Thought I Was Someone Else Someone Good”.
As the Olympic paraphernalia is taken down and the tourists leave London, we see the autumn rain and talk of national strikes return, now London seems much less happy and much less colourful. So, was the past six week an illusion, why did we, as Lou Reed says, forget ourselves?
London 2012 managed to do something, which a lot of national sporting don’t quite manage. Firstly it presented a coherent team GB, whether you are black, white or disabled, everyone was accepted as a British player. Secondly, it presented a vision of achievement where everywhere had an equal chance regardless of their wealth or background.
Writer John Lancaster recently pointed out, “In 1990, to come in the top 200 of the Sunday Times’s annual rich list, you needed £50m. Now you need £430m. Income levels for most social groups have stagnated in the last few decades, but the super-rich have continued to get sharply richer”. Whilst in one part of the London, the super-rich are spending £10million on a Sikorsky S-76D Heliocoper, in another, families struggle to feed their children. Earlier this month, Save the Children launched its first fundraising appeal to help UK families plunged into poverty by cuts and recession. A report published by the Princess Trust earlier this year found a shocking 48 per of teachers surveyed said they regularly witnessed pupils coming into school suffering from malnutrition or showing signs they had not eaten enough. One teacher reported seeing “scavenger pupils finishing off scraps” while another said some came into school “to have food and keep warm”.
After two years of austerity cuts, there is now a body of research showing that the cuts are hitting the poor hardest. Yet we have, at least, another decade of austerity. As Oxfam recently pointed out “On current trends, by 2035 this inequality will reach levels last seen in the Victorian era,”. Whilst children are going hunger, the impact on adults has been more severe. A paper published in the British Medical Journal suggested that more than 1,000 people in the UK may have killed themselves because of the impact on their lives of the economic recession, a trend increasingly seen in other recession hit countries such as Greece and Italy.
However, the impact of the booming super rich in London does more than highlight the extent of real poverty; it’s impact resonates across the whole city. London is one of the most expensive cities in the world. Over 85% of property central London is now worth over £2 million, pricing out even many middle class families earning £150,00 p.a, from houses, good schools and many other local facilities. Rather than intervene to control house or rental prices, policy makers have favored pushing poor families out into the suburbs through benefits caps, or controlling housing association subsidies.
An article in the Financial Times recently pointed out “The more money you have, the more rootless you become because everything is possible,” says Jeremy Davidson, a property consultant who specialises in properties that cost £10m or more in the most sought-after postcodes in London. It is not just that the super rich buy things that we wouldn’t ever consider buying, but they reside in a different community, that most of don’t ever enter. Obviously, this is anti-social and does not help create vibrant, dynamic and cohesive communities.
In reality, we are much more divided than ever before, so what will this mean for sport? In Bejing 2008, Lord Moyniham pointed out just 7 per cent of the population go to independent schools – but more than half of Britain’s golds in the 2008 Beijing Games were won by former private school pupils. “Its one of the worst statistics in British sport he claimed. As a result of increased funding into sport this improved over the past four years, but only slightly. In the 2012 games, a third of the medal winners came from privately educated schools. We shouldn’t be too shocked at this as 35% of MP’s, 54% of journalists and 70% of judges come from private schools, a trend that is not likely to alter in the decade of impending austerity cuts.
Whilst a working class youth is going to struggle to become a judge, according to analysis published by the London School of Economics (LSE) and the Open Society Justice in January 2012, Black people are 30 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched by police in England and Wales. These figure have not altered for nearly 20 years, a shocking indictment on the prevalence of institutional racism within the criminal justice system, and the single most common complaint cited by young people in the Inquries led by Scarman, McPherson as well as last years report on the London riots.
Within this broader context Danny Boyle managed to provide a fresh picture of what is means to be British. His opening ceremony, perhaps comically, presented a British identity defined by workers struggles, the women’s movement, anti-racism and music. Sure, the historical record was flawed, with the omission of any mention of colonialism, but In contrast to all the constant anxieties we hear from politicians about crime, immigration and British values, here was a fresh celebration of working class and liberal values, an open acknowledgement that its Trade Union struggles, Women’s Rights struggles and anti racist movement have had a positive impact on British culture. As we go through the next decade of austerity Britain will become more fractured, with even more violence and exclusion, and politicians will probably only react tighter controls and even more exclusionary definitions of British identity. It will be left to progressive thinkers to continue to argue the important role anti-racism, human rights, democracy and liberalism has been to developing the core values of British identity.
Progessive thinking and patriotism have not tended to come together much in the UK, George Orwell and Billy Bragg with his “The Progressive Patriot” are rare exceptions. Yet this issue was always, and in some countries it still is, a central issue in building a nation state. More recently, The Virtuous Citizen by Tim Soutphommasane has caught the attention of the Labour leadership, though the Labour politicians have a history of entering this debate very awkwardly. The central thesis of Soutphomnasane arguments is that patriotism should be valued alongside tolerance, mutual respect and human rights and equality. In the aftermath of the Olympics, and in times of austerity, we need celebrate how Britain became progressive and respect the contribution of Britain’s feminist, anti-racist and Labour movements.
Jagdish Patel is one of the editors of the TMG website. The Monitoring Group is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the author.