The London Olympics – What Have We Learned?
So what do the London Olympics say about Britain that we didn’t already know? Not much, I would suggest.
That we can organise a good ceremony? Watch any state event – weddings, funerals, commemorations and celebrations – and you know there will be something that will bring a tear to the eye.
That we are friendly and welcoming to foreigners? If we weren’t, the millions who flock to our country every year despite the horrendous price of things in the capital and elsewhere would surely give us a miss?
That we have good athletes? We’ve always had our stars, but the difference this time is that we have used more than balsa wood and glue to produce them.
That we like winners? Witness the grief that accompanies every failure of our national football teams to make the grade in major championships, and our joy when our golfers destroy the Yanks in the Ryder Cup.
So will a New Britain emerge in the wake of the medals, the stadia and the triumphant closing ceremony? I don’t think so. We are, and will continue to be, what we are.
Which is in equal measures grumpy, pessimistic, racist, tolerant, inventive, creative, philistine, irreverent, envious, magnanimous, chippy, chauvinistic, snobbish, precious, lazy, energetic, wise, foolish, humorous, brave, resilient, combative, small-minded and cruel.
I’m not proud of my nationality – which after all is an accident of fate – but equally I’m not ashamed of it. I am proud of the achievements of my compatriots while at the same time I’m sometimes ashamed of their misdeeds.
But I do feel lucky for the things I enjoy through having been born being British. Our language – beautiful, complex and multi-layered – and the huge body of literature stretching back to Chaucer and beyond. Our music – from Tallis to the Beatles. Our national sports – cricket, football and golf. Our mongrel culture – still absorbing new ways, words and attitudes from successive generations of immigrants. Our countryside – mountains, lakes, rivers, cliffs and meadows – still green and pleasant. And even our weather – four seasons in a day, yet rarely threatening us with death and destruction.
And flawed though they are, I appreciate our institutions. Our legal system – drawn from generations of precedent and still evolving despite the often foolish interventions of the lawmakers. Our parliamentary democracy – still the least worst form of government. The monarchy – quaint, antiquated, sometimes stuffy yet ineffably at the centre of our identity. Even the press – prepared to investigate, reveal and speak out despite its occasional excesses and the snaffling control of its proprietors. And yes, our National Health Service, ready to treat me in my hour of need without questioning my ability to pay.
I have visited and lived in countries that have some elements of the British patchwork. Wealth, health, landscapes, institutions and culture that match or exceed ours. And others that fall far short except in the qualities of their people.
But for all our faults and failings, and for all that we are nobody’s chosen people or promised land, I have never for a second wished to be other than a citizen of this infuriating yet magnificent country.