So much so that last Saturday night, after Mo Farah streeted his 10,000-metre rivals and Jessica Ennis triumphed in the heptathlon — achievements which crowned four victories earlier that day, and capped off Britain’s most successful sporting day in a century — BBC pundits ruminated whether Britain’s “national character” had now fundamentally changed. All because it had taken 16 lottery-funded, glorious gold medals, halfway through the 30th Olympiad.
(Which happened to be 15 more than the sun-dappled taxpayer-funded athletes of the Great Southern Land had achieved by then, and let’s not mention the cricket.)
But national character? It’s an elusive notion, and rarely more so than in class-ridden Britain, whose disaffected youth were, only a year ago, knifing each other with machetes and hatred in boroughs neighbouring the now sainted Olympic Park.
Things change. A year on, as British authorities assemble tacky memorial golden postboxes along the high streets of the hometowns of their medallists, national expectations soar that sport will unify Britain’s many tribes. Entitled posh girls and their chinless-wonder chums from England’s aristocratic shires will link arms with East End bovver boys, and displaced Pakistani bomb-makers too. Essex chavs will unite with dour Scousers who just might also be Sikhs. And independence-minded Scots will sing at the pub with the Welsh who want nothing of London, except to help them finance lots of gold medals.
So, can fleeting Olympic success at “The People’s Games” transform a divided nation of deep-fried-Mars-Bar-munching couch potatoes, and recent rioters too, into vital arugula-fanciers ruthlessly burning up county tracks, pools and velodromes in pursuit of physical excellence? Can another rebranded Britain — remember Cool Britannia? — be a multi culti masala of shiny, happy winners in sport and business, all patriotically inclusive as they go? It’s a big ask.
Some progress has been made. In Beijing, half of Britain’s gold medallists were educated in private schools, “one of the worst statistics in British sport” said Lord Moynihan, the (privately educated) chairman of the British Olympic Association (whose late brother Tony was a notorious Manila-based drug trafficker and brothel keeper). Thus far in these Games, private-school athletes have won just a third of British medals.
But there are other obstacles proving tougher to overcome. Farah, a Muslim, was born in Somalia, and Ennis, Britain’s Cathy Freeman and these Games’ marketing symbol, is half-Jamaican. Both are superb athletes, proudly British and publicly educated, who disprove the Oz adage that Brits are only good at sit-down sports.
Because of their heritage, both have been labelled, in the pages and threads of the Venal Little Englander handbook, the Daily Mail, and elsewhere as ‘Plastic Brits’ — those born abroad or of foreign parentage. The category presumably includes cycling god Bradley Wiggins, whose father was Australian (a white Christian, so to the Daily Mail editors that makes him acceptably unplastic).
For opinion-formers like the Mail that rather like another, dated, Britain, the polite, nicely squared-away English Tim Henman, forever pluckily trying to win Wimbledon, was way more palatable than the socially awkward Scot Andy Murray doing the same — even though the superior (gold-medallist) Murray likely soon will take out the tournament.
One national character positioning to influence any new national character emerging from these Games has been London’s ambitious Mayor Boris Johnson, clearly the big winner of the Olympics’ political gold medal.
Though comfortingly white for Middle England taste, by strict Daily Mail definition Johnson is another Plastic Brit, having been born in New York 48 years ago into one of Britain’s more pukka and capable families. The Johnsons have long populated Oxford, politics, journalism and the smart professions, but it’s Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson and his well-considered eccentricity that has set new standards in ubiquity.
Johnson’s profile in recent weeks has been such that The Guardian‘s Jonathan Freedland — no ideological fellow traveller he — went so far as to claim Boris would be the face of the London Games, rather as Mark Spitz was for Munich, Carl Lewis for Los Angeles, and Bolt for Beijing.
Writes Freedland: “Boris remains the one person in British politics who passes both the Madonna test — no surname necessary — and the Simpsons test, a character recognisable by his silhouette alone. He may be unserious, but it’s time to take him very seriously indeed.”
A rumpled riot of contrived buffoonery, the wild-haired Johnson could give Usain Bolt a run for his money, with his ability to sprint toward a photo opportunity and claim credit for an Olympics that had been underway three years before he got anywhere near City Hall … even as he over-extravagantly praises the worthier others.
As Boris would doubtless note, if anyone should take glory for Britain’s Olympics’ outcome, both infrastructurally and sportingly, it would be the modest quietly achieving Tory, Lord Sebastian Coe, the former Olympic champion athlete, along with — inconveniently — Labour’s Blair and Brown. This bumbling, bombastic blowhard’s great skill is to point that out, while also drawing lavish attention upon himself, on the Late Show with David Letterman.
Johnson’s media spinners say his brazen, and dare we say un-English self-promotion in claiming success for these charming Olympics is simply him ‘shamelessly promoting London’ because that’s what mayors are paid — almost £150,000 a year — to do.
But the strong sense among Brits is that the shamelessness is all about Boris’s future political career, long after Saturday’s closing ceremony. Not that the emerging Cult of Boris sees it that way, as he hurtles comically down a zipwire only to be dangled photogenically halfway before the easily delighted world’s press. Or fumbles his way into another offensive gaffe that curiously doesn’t seem to harm.
That’s just Boris, they say, in all his unwitting, disarming, cuddly lovableness, as was clearly evident in Hyde Park the last Friday before the Games opened, when he gave a rousing speech that had the massed crowd chanting his name.
Fortunately for Boris, his friend, fellow Old Etonian, and rival for Tory hearts and minds, the Prime Minister David Cameron, seems to be suffering an Olympic jinx in inverse proportion to Johnson’s effortless political athleticism.
Known as the ‘Curse of Cam’, and naturally trending on Twitter, this hex has it that when Cameron shows up at an Olympic event, the British contestant loses — unless Cameron’s presence is offset by Boris, Seb Coe or the royals.
It started on Day One of the Games. Cameron headed to London’s southwest to cosy up to the highly fancied cyclist Mark Cavendish as he rode to Britain’s first gold medal in the men’s road race. Except Cavendish finished 29th.
Then Cameron showed up at the pool to see every British mum’s teenage sweetheart Tom Daley take the presumptive gold in synchronised diving. Except Daley finished fourth.
No matter, Dapper Dave’s new best friend and judo black belt Vladimir Putin came to town to watch Olympic judo, and to try to explain why Moscow arms the murderous Assads in Syria. As Vlad explained the difference between an ippon and a waza-ari, Cameron’s curse naturally led to a Russian judoka taking gold, and a Brit judoka getting silver.
The word then gets around the Twitterverse that the PM is heading to the velodrome, where Team GB are enjoying almost obscene success. Horrified Brit tweeps, led by Labour’s former deputy PM, the decidedly unathletic John Prescott, call for Cameron to be denied entry to the cycling venue. Then ‘Queen’ Victoria Pendleton’s team is disqualified from the women’s team sprint.
As his coalition with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats slowly unravels, Cameron’s curse continues into the Olympics’ second week when the photogenic chicklit author and prominent ‘Cameroon’ Louise Mensch suddenly resigned as an MP to go and live in New York. Never knowingly invisible, the self-promoting Mensch was on the parliamentary committee that probed the Murdochs’ misdemeanours, and seemed to be their biggest defender.
While Cameron faces a nightmare by-election in her marginal seat, one presumes Mensch will in time accept a new job spruiking the Murdochs in the Big Apple, where her husband manages the thrash band Metallica.
But given Cameron’s recent luck, tweeps and myriad others watching the more profound ‘Curse of Murdoch’ that’s long manipulated British public life are urging Cameron to give his old friend Rebekah Brooks moral support by showing up in court at her upcoming criminal trial for phone hacking. Justice will then surely be done.
It’s all in good fun, and it all advantages Boris Johnson, so confident in his impenetrable political skin that he invited the toxic Rupert Murdoch — no friend of Cameron, he, blaming him for the Leveson media inquiry — and wife, Wendi, as his personal guests to watch the weekend of swimming medals.
The gesture did not go without Rupert reciprocating. “London in best shape ever,” he tweeted. “All overboard about the Olympics, brilliantly organised by Zeb (sic) Coe and Boris Johnson.”
The same day The Sun, the newspaper that Murdoch told Leveson most closely mirrors his own world view, published an opinion poll from YouGov that 36 per cent of Britons believed Johnson was well suited to be Prime Minister, up from 24 per cent in May.
No matter that Johnson isn’t an MP, the Sun poll also found that if the Conservative Party installed Johnson as national leader, Labour’s lead in the polls would be cut by five points, placing the Tories at 37 per cent, a point behind Labour’s 38, with the Lib-Dems on 10 per cent.
Every time Boris gaffes and blusters through something outrageous — his questionable private life, his chumminess with toxic media moguls — he gets away with it. Brits seem to warm to him, perhaps as a refreshing antidote to their bland, hyper-controlled politics.
As Johnson’s biographer Sonia Purnell notes, it all leaves an envious Cameron to rue events that would be catastrophic for anyone-but-Boris, but which in Johnson’s hands turn into an “absolute triumph”.
As Cameron struggles through a Leveson inquiry of his own creation, and a double-dip recession he promised but failed to correct, while taking the Tories to a touchy-feely liberalism the party’s core remains deeply uncomfortable with … the mayor’s antics, says biographer Purnell, widen “the gap between Johnson’s invigorating brightness and Cameron’s pessimistic realism; the blond’s opportunistic genius and the brunette’s apparent lack of ideas”.
Of course being Mayor of London is not the same as being British Prime Minister with the nuclear suitcase and an economy to right. Making sure the rubbish bins are collected and London’s buses run more-or-less on time are tasks Downing Street would love only to have. And the recently re-elected Johnson, a lifelong Eurosceptic, must convince voters beyond the M25, and beyond these Olympics too, that he has the right stuff to lead the nation, even as they increasingly think Cameron doesn’t.
But like Britain’s gold medallists, Johnson has sudden star power, and that has Ennis-like momentum, perhaps to shape that emergent new national character. Running the kaleidoscopic London has got to help.
The deeply Tory social commentator Charles Moore seems to think so. Writing in The Daily Telegraph, he says Brits “are ironical, eclectic, genre-subverting, fusion-cooking, mixing up Chelsea pensioners and lesbian kisses. We are high-brow and low-brow at the same time. The only politician who ‘gets’ any of this is Boris. He can mix Virgil and James Bond, a posh accent and street cred, conservative politics and a liberal spirit. Cameron is the moderniser, but Boris is the post-moderniser.
Like many Aussies of that generation, I lived in London for two years during the mid-90s. A confessed Anglophile, I love many things about British culture, including most of all, the Brits’ ability to be self-deprecating and have a good laugh at their own expense. They don’t take themselves too seriously because they don’t have to. They are and ancient and modern nation who have seen, done and survived it all. I love the place. But……..
I lived through Euro ’96, the European Football Championships, hosted by England and saw a side to their national character that frightened me. The hype and nationalism, whipped up by the tabloids of course, were suffocating, while the xenophobia and nastiness shown towards opponents such as Spain – defeated by England in the quarter finals – and Germany – who England lost to in the semis and eventual champion – were ugly. Chants of ‘Two World Wars and a World Cup later!’ were everywhere during the build up to the semi, while one tabloid declared war on Germany.
I watched the semi in a north London pub and as I waited for a bus after the game, I watched car windows and phone boxes get smashed in.
We think we love our sport in Australia but we have nothing on the craziness that occurs in other parts of the world. Thank God!
From Andrew Starkie
9 August 2012