How did Brexit Britain lose the spirit of the 2012 Olympics?
It was such a wonderful time to be alive, to be British, to feel that everyone had swallowed some kind of happiness pill that made them smile more, talk on the Tube more, for once look for the good in people and events rather than the bad. Optimism ruled. Even our newspapers, which so often yearn for things to fail, which had articulated the narrative first that we wouldn’t land the Games in the face of competition from Paris, then when that hurdle was crossed that we wouldn’t get things ready on time, and that everything would go wrong, had to get with the happy pill programme and join in the fun and the celebration.
The eyes of the world were on us, and from Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony to IOC President Jacques Rogge’s formal closing of what he called the ‘happy and glorious’ Games, they saw a country that was modern, vibrant, dynamic, outward-looking, multicultural, confident, welcoming, successful, united. Athletes and fans landed from every corner of the planet, and the smiles of wonder on their faces suggested they had taken the happy pill too. As they all headed home, their views of the UK almost certainly enhanced, it was possible to see London 2012 as a model in the art of what has become known as Soft Power.
The project itself, started under one government and completed under another, showed what can happen when that sense of unity develops around major challenges, the short, medium and long-term benefits of which most can sense, even amid all the risks that such projects inevitably carry.
And so to Stratford last Saturday for Day Two of the Para Athletics World Championships. I’d been back to the stadium only once since 2012, for last season’s Burnley game at West Ham, who now play their home games where five years ago Mo Farah and Usain Bolt did their stuff and where they will be doing it again in the IAAF World Championships early next month. But it was a night game, dark when I arrived, and in any event the mood around a football match is very different to a celebration of international Para track and field.
This time we had a few hours to wander around, see how the athletes’ village of 2012 had become real people’s homes at the centre of a lively community. Trees planted five years ago had grown into verdant avenues. Here a school, there a health centre, there a cafe or a restaurant or a hotel and at the Westfield shopping centre plenty more of all three, alongside shops that seemed to be doing pretty well, morning and evening. Walking round the Olympic Park I struggled even to recall what had been there – or perhaps not been there might be more accurate – when Tony Blair first made a visit to the area after the decision was made, in the face of considerable opposition, including from within the Cabinet, to ‘go for it’.
Coincidentally I had been talking earlier in the day to Tessa Jowell, who had been foremost in helping defeat the voices of doubt trying to turn TB against that ‘let’s go for it’ moment, and who as Olympics minister under the Labour government, then a key part of the delivery team and the legacy project under the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition, was a huge part of the success London 2012 became.
I contacted her again the next morning, just to tell her what a great evening we had had, but also that the legacy of which she was such a part went way beyond four weeks of amazing sport five years ago.
But amid that sense of satisfaction, or the fact that thanks to our enduring love for sport London 2017 has sold more tickets for the Paras than the previous seven editions of these championships combined, and that the IAAF Championships will be the best attended ever, it was impossible to escape the feeling that Britain is communicating a very different sense of itself to the world today. And we all know why… Don’t we Boris?
Is it really five years since London, Britain and the world revelled in Boris Johnson’s unique mix of wit, bonhomie and manicured buffoonery? Five years since even getting stuck on a zipwire waving his Union flags – in normal times for normal politicians cue for any manner of damaging headlines – served merely to cement his popularity. Say what you like about Boris, the chortles would go, but he’s a character, he does make me laugh.
It was Harry Truman who said ‘it is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit’. I don’t think I am being overly unkind in saying that Johnson, then the London Mayor, paid more care than most to the credit taking rather than the delivery. London 2012 took his profile and popularity home and abroad to a new giddy level.
Nothing wrong with political ambition of course.
But how is this for an unintended consequence? The Olympics made Johnson the force that he became. And it is in large part the force that he became that delivered Brexit.
And how is this for a hideous irony? If the face Brexit Britain presents to the world today had been the face we had presented when going for the Games… no chance. What was I saying about Britain at the time of London 2012? … the eyes of the world were upon us and saw a country that was modern, vibrant, dynamic, outward-looking, multicultural, confident, welcoming, successful, united. Would any of those adjectives be applied to the Britain Johnson has helped bring about with his attempt to exploit the referendum, as he had the Olympics, to feed his own ambition to bring down David Cameron and install himself in his stead?
Go on, get a piece of paper, write those adjectives in a list down the left hand side of the page. Then have a 2012 column and a 2017 column.
I defy anyone with an ounce of objectivity, on any one of them, to mark 2017 higher than 2012. We are less modern, less vibrant, less dynamic, less outward-looking, less multicultural, less confident, less welcoming, less successful – we were one of the fastest growing major economies then, one of the slowest now. And we are less united than at any time I can ever remember.
There are many factors. But Brexit is the big one. And Boris Johnson was the man who made the difference. For that, I will give him the credit. Nigel Farage and Aaron Banks’ money did their bit. The right wing media cartel that makes up the Brextremist Lie Machine did their bit. But if Leave’s leading lights had been Farage, Kate Hoey, Andrea Leadsom and Gisela Stuart, I don’t think Leave would have won. Johnson and his former pal Michael Gove picked up the ball others had been taking to the line, took if from them and ran it over to unexpected success.
As we tumble down the Soft Power Index, now headed by France, Johnson can take a lot of the credit for that too, which given he is the Foreign Secretary suggests he is failing somewhat in one of his central tasks. It is one of the reasons, despite the Tory Party’s recent habit of picking a leader clearly incapable of being Prime Minister, why he is tumbling down the list of most likely successors to Theresa May. But the damage is done, and unless Brexit is stopped, as most MPs believe it should be but all too few have the courage to say, it will have many and varied consequences.
This may not be the most significant, but I think we can safely say that if we applied for a major sporting event like the Olympics right now, we might as well, to quote the latest of Johnson’s unwise and self-indulgent sound bites, ‘go whistle’.
As one of the British Paralympic Association big wigs put it, as we watched British athletes win nine medals, five of them gold, ‘I travel around the world all the time. I have not met one single person outside Britain who says to me … ‘Brexit … that seems like a good idea”.
Don’t worry Boris. I know you lie awake at night indulging in your Churchill fantasy and worrying what your legacy might be.
Like Tessa’s, like Sebastian Coe’s – he was there on Saturday, as ever, supporting the sport he loves – your place in Olympic political history is made. It’s just that theirs is positive. Yours is to have helped take the Olympic spirit, the mood of London 2012, and create a Britain which represents the very opposite of all the good that they did.