As noted in the blog post by Philip Booth on 30th July, the Olympic opening ceremony on Friday was well produced and dramatic, with a skillful use of images drawn from popular culture and history to put over a clear and dramatic message about Britain. What though was the message? The most striking element for a detached observer was the way it put over a particular account of British history, one that has far-reaching implications for the way we understand contemporary British economy and society.
Initially we saw a verdant, bucolic landscape, looking remarkably like the Shire in the Lord of the Rings, with a large tree at its centre. This landscape was inhabited by people in traditional peasant dress taking part in handicraft production and participating in folk festivities, signified by dancing round a maypole. Then (as we were informed by Huw Edwards’ breathless commentary) this rural idyll was uprooted with the advent of industrialism. This was represented by the uprooting of the tree and the sight of dark smoking chimneys rising from the ground and the transformation of the green landscape into a dark one dominated by images of industrialism and mass production. The rural folks of the earlier scene were now replaced by toiling industrial workers, and engineers and industrialists, shown wearing black frock coats and top hats. We then had a scene of modern Britain, represented by the National Health Service (supposedly therefore its main or defining institution) which was symbolized by lots of child patients and nurses as hospital beds swept into the arena. The role of this institution as a protection against anxiety and danger was represented by the appearance of Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter novels and the defense of the child patients by an army of Mary Poppins figures. Then we had the presentation of protest movements, represented by the suffragettes of the WSPU, the trades union movement, and CND.
A clear story comes from this. A harmonious, rooted, natural society is overthrown and forcibly replaced by an industrial one in the Industrial revolution. This was driven by greed and selfish interest, represented by the top-hatted industrialists. However a reaction against the dark side of this and the uncertainty it created led to the creation of the modern welfare state, with the National Health Service as its central feature. A crucial element is the part played by artistic subversion and organized protest that led to reform. One very important thing to grasp is that the director of the ceremony (Danny Boyle) and the BBC commentators did not see this narrative as contested or tendentious or even as something to explicitly articulate. Rather they clearly saw it as uncontroversial, something that everyone knew and broadly accepted.
This is not the case, to put it mildly. The story that the ceremony assumed has many flaws and is not universally accepted. The narrative embodied in the ceremony has a highly romanticized and inaccurate picture of the pre-industrial, rural past. The grinding poverty of the majority, the often acute conflicts between rich and poor and the pervasive uncertainty of life in an order marked by recurrent famines and epidemics is airbrushed away. Industrial society is shown as something of a departure from the natural, rather than a product of human ingenuity (and hence natural). The rise in living standards brought about by the Industrial Revolution (now well attested by historical research) is ignored. The rise of state welfare is seen as the ordained conclusion of historical progress in a remarkably ‘whiggish’ historical narrative while the many alternative ways of providing protection against uncertainty through popular organization and mutual aid were ignored. The choice of protest movements to highlight left out many that were large and important at the time such as the Anti-Corn Law League and there were surprising omissions such as anti-slavery or the wider campaign for the vote and constitutional reform.
The narrative of the opening ceremony leads to and embodies certain assumptions that, we should realize, dominate a great deal of contemporary thinking. One is that modern industrial economies are in some sense unnatural or a violation of a natural order. That means that while they may bring great benefits they are in some sense regrettable. Another is that there is a clear narrative of progress in the modern world. Some kinds of developments and social movements are part of this narrative of progress while others are not and can be ignored, no matter how large or significant they were at the time. Thus the great movement for collective self-help or mutual aid in the 18th and 19th centuries is not part of the main story while the growth of state welfare is. The appearance of a large welfare state and in particular the National Health Service is both inevitable and in some sense the conclusion or climax of a process of historical evolution. Modern government is thus the central agent of progress and a broadly benevolent force.
The fact is that all of these assumptions are wrong or at the very least highly contestable. However they shape argument in a way that is all the more powerful for being unexamined and largely unconscious. Events like the Olympic opening ceremony serve an important purpose, however much they may annoy some of us, because they lay bare the basic beliefs and world view of influential groups in modern British society and help us to understand why, as a result, there is a structural predisposition towards certain kinds of public policy on the part of both elites and the wider population.