By Paul Goodman
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Burley: Speaking for Britain?
One view of Danny Boyle's Olympics show is that it was Tony Blair's Millennium Dome Opening Ceremony revisited – or, as Aidan Burley put it, "leftie multi-cultural crap"…Welfare tribute next?…The most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen – more than Beijing, the capital of a communist state!" Unlike Mr Burley, most of those who saw it that way won't have been on Twitter – and, unlike him again, will thus not have been issuing a press release (which was what he managed to do, even if wasn't what he was trying to do). But they will have been complaining to their friends, families and, perhaps above all, to themselves in similar terms.
"Snogging multi-racial couple…Bloody lesbian kiss from Brookside…Not Paul McCartney again…Can't bear that J.K.Rowling myself"…and so on: essentially, disapproval of more or less everything that's happened in Britain for the past half-century. As a rule, you would have to be 50 or older to take this view – which is not to dismiss its prevalence automatically, since we are not "a young country" (as Mr Blair once claimed) but an ageing one. So how many people really felt like this? We would need opinion polls to give us an answer, but my guess is a very small minority – just as only a small minority want to see the NHS replaced by a different healthcare system.
As Mr Boyle's show reminded us, this isn't communist China. So we must be free to criticise it if we please…
But since minorities are not always mistaken, the next – and a bigger – question raises its head: were they right or wrong? This one of those questions that once raised can only be dismissed, since what is at stake here is not so much facts as taste, and de gustibus non est disputandum. This applies even to Mr Boyle's NHS worship. The facts show that the healthcare systems of other European countries deliver outcomes at least as good as the NHS. But the English cling to the myth that our health system is a model for the world – perhaps less out of love for it than fear of what change might bring. Ultimately, we're making a taste choice.
So since taste really is the arbiter here, and we don't live in communist China – a point that some of the show's enthusiasts have stressed, contrasting its quirkiness with the uniformity of the massed ranks in Beijing four years ago – we should be free to say that we disliked the display if we did. It did not, at least in part, appeal to me – but then again, glitzy spectaculars are not my scene. If I had to focus in on one small part of the event by way of illustration, I'd say that I've have preferred more J.R.R.Tolkien and less J.K.Rowling, though from the event's point of view Ms Rowling has the undoubted advantage over Professor Tolkien of actually being alive.
…But let's face it. It can't be claimed that the show was badly done. Or unpatriotic. Or that it spurned Britain's Christian heritage.
Indeed, the more I think about it, the more the shift from Tolkien to Rowling encapsulates the social change of the last 50 years or so: from Catholic conservative married Oxford professsor to Labour-supporting remarried state school teacher (I don't know about Ms Rowling's religious views). Perhaps the most unforgettable image of this change involved the Queen herself – the James Bond stunt. It was last night's equivalent of her having to link hands during the singing of Auld Lang Syne at that Millennium show. And again, it was not much to my taste, because I'm wary of too much daylight being let in on magic, even if it's the Living Daylights.
But here's the rub. The Millennium show was badly conceived. It cannot fairly be claimed that Mr Boyle's, with its mass of volunteers, was anything other than brilliantly done. Or that it spurned Britain's Christian heritage – think Jerusalem, think Abide With Me. Or that it was in any way unpatriotic, even if Mr Boyle's twin ideas of political perfection seem to be medieval England and the NHS (not a comparison he was presumably trying to draw). Or that it averted its face from the horror of 7/7. Or, going back to the Queen and 007, that most viewers are likely to have disapproved, any more than they disapproved of the running gag involving Rowan Atkinson.
If you detested the show, you'll also detest much of modern Britain
And although it was very long on pop music and surprisingly short on sport, showcased youth at the expense of middle age (let alone old age, though the Chelsea Pensioners took a turn) and when looking back on British history fixed its gaze the masses rather than Carlyle's Great Men – though that's perhaps inevitable with a big display – Mr Boyle's vision really did capture something of Modern Britain. Turning my rule on its head, I think this really is a matter of fact rather than of taste. And I would put money on anyone who detested his display and everything in it also detesting a very great deal about modern Britain, its modernity especially.
This would not be a promising base camp for today's Conservative Party to set out from. I am sure that such isn't Mr Burley's location of choice, but his tweets yesterday evening seemed to me to sum up much that's gone wrong for the conservative cause during the past quarter-century: the apparent belief that tweets or e-mails don't have consequences; the use of verbal sledgehammers to try to pick a lock (in other words, there were criticisms to be made of the show, but "multicultural crap" isn't one of them); the catastrophic timing; the playing into the hands of the left, which greeted his tweets with exploitative joy.
How to deal with Mr Burley
Should the Cannock MP be free to speak his mind? And if so should that freedom be constrained by his responsibilities? I discussed Mr Boyle's show, Mr Burley's tweets and these thorny ethical questions this morning with a secret source whose identity I naturally cannot divulge, but will refer to for the purposes of this article only as the Greatest Living Englishman. I can't remember whether he or I first raised another aspect of Mr Burley's intervention – namely, that the only thing most people will think they know about him, if anything, is that he's the chap who dressed up in a nazi uniform somewhere or other. (Actually, he didn't, but the truth is often lost in these affairs.) The Conservative Party must thus square up to yet another public relations problem.
But I think it was the Greatest Living Englishman who suggested the solution – namely, that the Cannock MP should be part of the show in future, when the world, dazzled by Mr Boyle's spectacular yesterday evening, returns the Olympics to London in a few years time. Mr Burley, dressed from head to toe in the nazi uniform that he didn't wear, could be pelted with rotten fruit by Guardian columnists swollen with faux outrage, seething heathcare assistants, and more-moderning-than-thou Tory MPs, while he sobbingly issues ever more desperate "statements of clarification". David Cameron himself could then apply the coup de grace by solemnly removing the whip. Can we have Mr Burley in uniform and in the display next time round, please?