Despite the ever-present rain we are smack bang in the middle of what has been dubbed ‘The Great British Summer’, a dazzling celebration of patriotism which began with the Jubilee and climaxes with the Olympics. Major events which take place every year, such as Wimbledon, have been claimed as part of the proceedings; new ones, like the Radio 1 Festival in Hackney, proudly insert themselves. Union Jacks are ubiquitous while advertising has adopted an almost monolithic tone of jolly patriotism. The talk everywhere is of a country ‘coming together’. Hooray for Britain, and hooray for Britishness!
What ‘Britain’ and ‘Britishness’ mean, however, is not open for discussion. To look beyond the surface, beyond the flags and the banal celebratory rhetoric, is to be ‘negative’. It is expected, then, that critical thought should take a leave of absence during this Great British Summer. If you are not an active participant then you had at least better be passive and silent; to be vocal in any opposition is to be portrayed as ‘bitter’, ‘a ‘spoilsport’ (terrible crimes in our insipid age of fun-loving ‘positivity’). It’s not a stretch to observe that there is a sense of enforced celebration – indeed, the ‘Jubilee’ Bank Holidays ostensibly involved taking two days off to partake in the revelries and, if you were critical of events, you were inevitably told that you should ‘go to work’ instead.
The shutting down of criticism takes place in subtle ways, invariably with a jocular tone. I experienced it repeatedly during the Jubilee. Questioning the existence of the monarchy was viewed as an amusingly cranky view from an angry Scotsman. Questioning the celebration itself was viewed as adolescent posturing. I was repeatedly told to ‘join in’. The harshest opposition I received was to be told to ‘lighten up’ and to ‘leave the country’ if I didn’t like it. It was done almost unconsciously but the clear aim was to contrast the light-hearted, fun, mature patriots with the dour, unhappy and juvenile critics. When Republic staged their anti-monarchy protest on the day of the flotilla, Twitter was filled with people proclaiming that the ‘spoilsports’ wouldn’t ruin their fun. The closest most people got to criticism was to ‘live-tweet’ the day with a weary air of sarcastic detachment – meaningless as this ironic detachment looms large over an entire generation’s engagement with anything and it did not even begin to question why the viewer felt detached.
We saw much the same response to the Royal Wedding last year. This seemed even more bizarre as it was such an anachronistic event. Even as a republican, I can appreciate that many may have wanted to mark the 60 year reign of their Queen; marking the wedding of one of her grandchildren with a day of national celebration was lost on me. More than that – it seemed perverse. The backdrop to all of these events is austerity Britain. Whether or not you agree that we are seeing a sustained attack on the living standards of the poor and vulnerable, many independent bodies and observers have noted that we are witnessing a huge rise in wealth of those at the top of society while everyone else either stagnates or becomes poorer. The Institute for Fiscal Studies have reported that inequality has already risen to levels previously not seen for 20 years and continues to rise. They report that ‘the poor have undoubtedly been getting worse off in absolute terms’. They reported that in a single year, 2010, living standards had regressed to 2004 levels. They expect median household income to be lower in 2015 than it was in 2002. Youth unemployment has already reached historic levels while child poverty is widely believed to be rising. In contrast, the wealth of the richest 1% in the UK has risen to record levels. It’s surely not difficult to perceive it as strange that with all of this happening we choose to ‘come together’ to celebrate the wedding of a hugely privileged family, symbolic of our class system with its hierarchy, elitism and hegemony?
It’s easy to say that this is ‘taking it all too seriously’ and that it’s possible to join the celebrations while opposing austerity. Easy to say, impossible to practice. These celebrations certainly form a part of the ‘we’re all in this together’ narrative. The aim is to push a cogent picture of a Britain united and it’s no mistake that ‘we’ are to be united around a Britain rooted in hierarchy. This is a political presentation of Britain as apolitical and anyone who doesn’t partake in the performance is not welcome. This is not opinion – as I have noted before, the police employed authoritarian measures in support of the Royal Wedding including pre-emptive arrests. The idea that people should be arrested on the basis that they may commit a crime is such a sinister one that millions of us went to see a Tom Cruise film based on it. When it happened in reality, in our own country, hardly anyone noticed or cared. Those arrested may not have done anything but they were undeniably negative, undeniably critical – that was crime enough.
We already know that similar tactics will be used in the policing of the Olympics. We already know that we will see the biggest deployment of military and security services on our streets since World War 2. We already know that the cost of the games is set to be at least 10 times more than originally planned and that much of this cost involves taxpayer money flowing into private hands, effectively privatising large swathes of land in London. We already know that the Olympics are being used as an excuse to remove ‘undesirables’, whether that be prostitutes or claimants of housing benefit. We already know all of this without even getting into the work practices of many of the involved organisations, the transformation of London into a playground for the wealthy (from ‘games lanes’ access to the lack of social housing and rising property prices and the absurd, repressive behaviour of LOCOG.) The Olympics offers not only a presentation of a united Britain – it does so while actively altering our city and transferring further wealth to the already-wealthy.
Perhaps as a result of this, we haven’t seen anything yet. If you thought that criticism of the Royal Wedding or the Jubilee was unwelcome, the Olympics will see the pressure towards (at least) passive acceptance hugely ramped up. You will hear arguments that it is about the sport and you should be able to separate this from all of the above; you will hear stirring music on the BBC and speeches about how much Britain has achieved; you will hear exhortations to get behind ‘our’ athletes. Most of all, you will hear again and again that criticism is bitter, juvenile, negative, unwelcome. When the inevitable scandals break, few will take notice. Austerity Britain, our rotten financial system, our discredited media, our unaccountable and broken democratic system – all will be obscured behind the spectacle, a nifty real-life Hunger Games distracting us from the crisis our country is mired in. There will, of course, be plenty of ironic detachment and tweets making fun of the thing. Myself, I’ll stay bitter and juvenile. Fuck the Olympics.