Establishment’s contradictory coup
The Olympic opening ceremony represented another rearticulation of post-World War II British national identity, argues Eddie Ford
It is possible that Aidan Burley, the 32-year-old Tory MP for Cannock Chase and former Oxford University theology student, had no idea that his two July 27 tweets attacking the Olympic opening ceremony would whip up such a storm. If so, the opprobrium heaped upon him must have come as a bit of shock.
His first tweet was discharged as the athletes started to enter the Olympic stadium after the Danny Boyle-directed £27 million extravaganza: “The most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen - more than Beijing, the capital of a communist state! Welfare tribute next?” And the second one went: “Thank god the athletes have arrived! Now we can move on from leftie multicultural crap. Bring back red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones!”
Burley’s tweets were condemned by virtually the entire political establishment and way beyond. David Cameron crossly slammed them as “idiotic things to say” about a ceremony which was a “great showcase” for the country. Boris Johnson, the Tory London mayor, also poured scorn on the “nonsense” view that the extravaganza had all being “leftie stuff” - confessing that he had “hot tears of patriotic pride from the beginning”. Labour MP David Winnick even went so far as to suggest that Burley’s comments - apart from being “totally inane” - were “anti-British” and “at variance with the feeling of millions of people up and down the country”.
True, Burley quickly started to backtrack, as the babble of condemnations became a din - possibly a lesson in the dangers of impetuous, post-pub postings to social media websites. Speaking the next morning to BBC West Midlands radio, Burley claimed - not entirely convincingly - that he was not attacking multiculturalism as such, which naturally should be “celebrated”. Rather, he was “having a go at the rather trite way, frankly, that it was represented in the opening ceremony”. After all, he continued, “we all love the NHS” - Tories and non-Tories alike - but for those overseas viewers, especially in the United States, “20 minutes of children and nurses jumping on beds must have seemed quite strange”.
Perhaps moving on to his real objection to the opening ceremony, Burley remarked: “And then we had all these rappers - that is what got me to the point about multiculturalism”. Given that rap music is enjoyed by a “relatively small section of society”, mainly young people - or so he contended - he then not so innocently asked: “Is that what we are most proud of culturally?” A few hours later, despite being “misunderstood” and presumably a victim of political correctness gone mad, he briefly appeared on ITV’s This morning expressing his disapproval of those “parts” of the opening ceremony that were “overtly political, like showing CND signs”- and complained again about the “huge” and “disproportionate focus” on rap music, “when it is a small part of multiculturalism”.1 Burley is referring, we guess, to the one minute of Dizzee Rascal performing ‘Bonkers’ (the May 2009 number-one single, which NME magazine lists among the “150 best tracks of the past 15 years”).
Leaving aside for now the irony of the Rolling Stones being seemingly invoked as a symbol of white or ‘Anglo-Saxon’ cultural supremacy - they were, of course, originally denounced by unreconstructed racists for playing the “devil’s music” - it is not too hard to make out what Burley is trying to say. Boyle’s “crap” opening ceremony did not portray Britain in the way he would have liked: overwhelmingly white, imperial and royal.
Now you could just dismiss Burley’s remarks as the utterly irrelevant semi-ravings of a reactionary idiot and no more. After all, he was the man David Cameron sacked last year from his post of parliamentary private secretary to the transport secretary for his “offensive and foolish” behaviour during a Hooray Henry, Nazi-themed stag party in the French Alps - which involved frequent Nazi saluting and toasts to the “ideology and thought process of the Third Reich”. What fun. A slight weirdo then, even if he did write a letter of “fulsome apology” to The Jewish Chronicle and made a big show of planning a visit soon to Auschwitz (the French prosecuting authorities have started a “preliminary inquiry” into the incident, seeing how it is a crime to wear or exhibit in public anything reminiscent of the Nazi era, except in the context of a film, play or historical exhibition).
But it would be profoundly mistaken to simply ignore Burley’s complaints about the ceremony or, alternatively, refuse like a philistine to critically engage with the vast number of political symbols and messages generated by the extravaganza: a lot of ‘decoding’ has to be done. Albeit in his own bigoted way, Burley’s remarks contain a kernel of truth. Meaning that the MP for Cannock Chase feels that the ceremony had become a site for culture wars - and the wrong side came out on top. Or, as Labour MP Paul Flynn enthusiastically put it, “wonderfully progressive socialist sentiments and ideas were smuggled into the opening romp” - and, best of all, Tories like Cameron and Johnson were “tricked into praising the Trojan horse”. In marked contrast, that is, to the recent diamond jubilee pageant - a thoroughly stodgy, mind-stultifyingly conservative glorification of monarchical power.
We should hardly be surprised at the opening ceremony if we consider the social, cultural and political background of the team responsible for it. Hardly rightwing establishment figures. Boyle has earned a radical reputation, not undeserved, for films like Trainspotting and Slumdog millionaire (not to mention vastly entertaining movies like 28 days later and Sunshine). Frank Cottrel Boyce, who scripted the actual ceremony, used to write for Living Marxism - the monthly journal produced, of course, by the Revolutionary Communist Party before it dissolved into various libertarian pressure groups/think-tanks (as the Daily Mail delightedly told its no doubt horrified readers). Paulette Randall, the associate director of the ceremony, is a black theatre director who has worked on plays like Gem of the ocean - about the legacy of slavery - and James Baldwin’s The blues for Mr Charlie, a powerful play loosely based on the 1955 murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi. The ceremony’s “creative overseer” was Stephen Daldry, who directed the justifiably popular Billy Elliot about an aspiring 11-year-old ballet dancer in a northern mining community set against the backdrop of the 1984-85 Great Strike.
Then look at the kaleidoscopic, sometimes slighting bewildering torrent of imagery, scenes and mini-dramas conjured up by the undeniably talented Boyle in his ‘Isles of wonder’ ceremony - a name taken from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and involving a cast of over 7,500. Such as the unforgettable vision of the five Olympic rings being forged by the workers of the industrial revolution - with its epically depicted miners rising from the mists of memory. Or the segment where dozens of nurses and children in pyjamas - along with an army of umbrella-waving Mary Poppinses - acrobatically skip and dance on massive hospital beds with the letters ‘NHS’ on prominent display, whilst seeing off a collection of evil villains including Lord Voldemort from the Harry Porter series. Leading to the Daily Mail headline, “Americans baffled by ‘leftwing tribute’ to free healthcare during opening ceremonies (and what was with those flying Mary Poppinses defeating Lord Voldemort?)”.2
There were also references to the suffragettes, the Jarrow crusade and many aspects of working class history - good and bad. Boyle also gave us an allusion to his own film, Trainspotting, along with flashes of Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s girl and Ken Loach’s classic Kes - and much more. We even had a glimpse of the first ever pre-watershed lesbian kiss on British television from a January 1994 episode of Channel Four’s Brookside (this journalist remembers it well).
Perhaps further upsetting the cultural conservatives, we were bombarded by songs from popular culture - even if Elgar did make a predictable appearance. The Jam’s ‘Going underground’ (“You choose your leaders to place your trust, but the lies all come down and the promises rust”); The Who’s ‘My generation’ (“People try to put us down”); The Sex Pistols’ ‘Pretty vacant’ (seems particularly pertinent with this government); The Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet dreams’ (“Sweet dreams are made of this, who am I to disagree? Some of them want to use you ... some of them want to abuse you”); ‘Uprising’ by The Muse (a call to action?); etc, etc.
Whatever else you can say about the opening ceremony, it would be churlish in the extreme to deny that Boyle - now hotly tipped for a knighthood - succeeded in his prime objective: to make sure that extravaganza had something for “everyone”. It is hard to think of anyone or anything, desirable or undesirable, that was left out. Indeed, the show was almost the ultimate in inclusiveness - and only a sad cynic would doubt Boyle’s sincerity.
Self-evidently then, the opening ceremony was hardly a straightforward celebration of the establishment or reactionary values. No, rather, the Boyle opening extravaganza was a complex and contradictory phenomenon that represented another attempt at rearticulating British national identity.
It was a further elaboration of the post-World War II ideology of bourgeois anti-racism predicated on an ‘inclusive’ nationalism embracing the Smiths, Patels and Adebayos as equal subjects under the crown. With everyone safely herded into the big official anti-racist tent, subscribing to the same, mythologised ‘anti-fascist’ British history, the real and hard-won democratic gains of the working class can then be being partially championed and appropriated by this new British nationalist paradigm. Welcome to the reinvented ruling class - now relaxed and prepared to mock even itself. Certainly one that no longer believes in a quasi-scientific biological racism or militaristic empire-building; one that is no longer exclusively white, heterosexual or totally obsessed by a ‘kings and queens’ view of history.
But by definition this is a constantly contested process. In that sense, Boyle’s ceremony - for all the spectacle, razzmatazz and expensive special effects - was a snapshot of the class struggle. It was therefore full of paradoxes, successes, defeats and compromises - just like political struggle and life itself. Naturally it is easy to understand why it seriously ruffled the feathers of Aidan Burley, the Daily Mail and US conservatives - as to some extent the ceremony actually was a giant promo for the Labour Party ‘socialism’. Or “leftist multicultural crap”, to coin a phrase. But all this just shows how “crap” the ideas of the Tory right are, based on nothing much more than crazed middle class prejudices plus worship of the market, elitism, monarchy, individualism, etc.
Just imagine for a moment if the whole thing had been staged by a straight-as-a-die member of the establishment - churning out an incredibly dull affair that waffled interminably on about the Magna Charta, the beautiful English language, the mother of parliaments, the glorious history of the monarchy, the beloved Church of England, Winston Churchill and Britain’s finest hour … it would have been a bad day for the establishment.
Instead, the establishment very wisely appointed Boyle in 2010 - in order to get a truly populist show that indirectly acknowledged the battles and struggles fought from below. In fact, the Olympic opening ceremony was a brilliant coup for the ruling class and a personal artistic triumph for Boyle. Its “dark, satanic mills”, suffragettes, NHS, racial equality, rap music, lesbian kiss, etc presented us with a revamped idea of Britishness that saw the establishment simultaneously incorporating the progressive struggles and yet making concessions to them.
The figure of Danny Boyle himself - knighthood or no knighthood - near perfectly encapsulates this double act, giving voice to both working class culture and the rearticulated establishment outlook. No wonder the saner elements of the ruling class are as pleased as punch. Thanks to Danny Boyle, millions - previously on the outside - will have been drawn, to some degree or another, into the new bourgeois consensus.
2. Daily Mail July 28.