Professor Philip Booth is Editorial and Programme Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs.
It would be churlish to do anything other than praise the technical brilliance of the Olympic opening ceremony. The choreography and the execution by both the professionals and volunteers were terrific. The whole atmosphere of spontaneity also hit the right notes. Despite this, the content was highly questionable. We know from the IEA/Liberty Fund publication The representation of business in English literature that there is a subtle anti-business bias in literature and the arts. This was certainly apparent at the opening ceremony.
We start with a rural idyll with well-dressed people playing happily in the countryside. They are then ripped from their roots as the horror of the industrial revolution takes place. There is no sense of the uncertainty, dreadful poverty, disease and malnutrition of rural living of the time giving way to migration to cities to lead a better life where, despite the difficulties, many more people had food on the table and some degree of certainty.
I don’t wish to make the opposite error of suggesting that rural poverty gave way to an industrial idyll, but the reality is one of progress and a pretty grim life in pre-industrial Britain. The ceremony moved on to highlight protest movements. Not the Anti-Corn-Law League which did so much to reduce the poverty of working people, but the suffragettes, trades unionists and, later on, quite extraordinarily, CND.
Much else was missing too. There was religion in the ceremony but not religious values – the opposite of the normal prioritisation these days. Without thrift, hard work, honesty and the essential ethic of trust that pervaded so much business activity in the nineteenth century, there would have been no progress.
There was no mention either of finance and trade which was an essential part of the industrial revolution. Of course, finance was one industry in which we really did lead the world for much longer than a few decades and – to a large extent – still do. Given that nearly 80% of the British economy is in the service industries today, the omission of finance makes any story of the development of the British economy and society woefully incomplete.
Of course, one service industry was lauded: the nationalised health service, with the letters “NHS” being flashed up in huge letters. At least one could get some amusement here from the celebration of the NHS using the example of a hospital that was founded well before the NHS was created. There was the dancing of large numbers of nurses – from whom I take away nothing – who were in clean, smart uniforms that have been abolished by the NHS to give way to attire more suitable for completing the vast amount of paperwork that is now imposed upon our poor nursing staff. If we were not so parochial, perhaps we would look elsewhere in Europe and celebrate some of their models of health provision instead.
And this takes us to the other aspect of the ceremony. It was terribly parochial – indeed, arguably self-indulgent of both the political tastes of the director as well as of the country. The Olympics is an international festival that is being held in Britain for the benefit of the whole world. This should have been the focus and, with some imagination, the communitarian preferences of the directors could still have been at the forefront of the celebration whilst holding an event that was inclusive and not divisive.
To begin with, the Olympics should be marked by 100 days of peace. How about celebrating the “little peace makers”: the people who, in their own communities, villages and families, in situations of intense conflict, go to great risks to promote peace and reconciliation. There are enough examples around the world today, and many more in recent post-war history. How about celebrating Olympic achievements, but, remembering the iconic Brett Lee/Andrew Flintoff photograph, let’s also celebrate those people who admire the achievements of others and who empathise with those who do not quite make it. All this could have been set against a backdrop of the voluntary participation of many people who make all the sports that comprise the Olympics happen in Britain and throughout the world. Britain is the home of organised sport because it is the home of order and law-making in bodies independent of the state. This theme could have subtlely been introduced.
We could have had an Olympic ceremony that hit buttons that would have appealed to all – values that religious and non-religious people would admire and a celebration of community that people of all political persuasions throughout the world would have understood. This could all have been set within the same background of spontaneity and freedom that characterised the opening ceremony and which was rightly designed to contrast with the state-centered, regimented ceremony of four years ago.