All parties will claim the triumph of the Games. But Ed Miliband is best poised to turn it into a new national purpose
By now, Britons may be growing weary of post-Olympic celebration and reflection. But let me add an Australian voice of congratulations to London and Britain. The Games were a stunning triumph. Many Australians watching, myself included, could only concede that they could well have been the best ever. Just maybe.
As the autumn conference season approaches, political parties will be tempted to claim the Olympics’ triumph as their own, to appropriate the patriotic spirit generated by London 2012. Few could deny that a more confident Britain has emerged this summer. The goodwill and hospitality of Britons provided a picture of what a community of virtuous citizens, at its best, could look like.
It helped that Team GB delivered so many medals, including the golden variety. But perhaps it was Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony that did the most to define the legacy of the Games. What was especially striking about it, at least to my eyes, was its story of Britain as a project – that ongoing project of a New Jerusalem. It was a convincing argument that Britishness wasn’t about nostalgic yearning for the stuff of an imperial past, but something that existed in the present and future.
Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband will surely tap into this forward-looking sensibility. At a time when economic conditions are so grim in much of the world, national optimism can’t afford to be squandered.
Cameron has certainly been quick to emphasise that Britain was “not a country whose time has been, but one whose time has come”. Some Tories see the post-Olympic setting as an opportunity for Cameron to revive his ideas about a big society. What better advertisement for Burkean conservatism, they say, than those “little platoons” of volunteers staffing the events across London?
Whether such a story may be convincing is another matter. Cameron’s pursuit of austerity makes any positive Tory story difficult to tell.
The response to Boyle’s celebration of the NHS highlights, moreover, that public sensibilities remain strongly social democratic.Indeed, Miliband and Labour seem best poised to convert patriotic sentiment into national purpose. Miliband’s signalled intent to “rebuild Britain” through a responsible capitalism has the early signs of a leftist agenda of nation-building.
The circumstances are ripe for such a programme. The economy continues to languish. The young are faced with limited prospects for work. Families are confronted with the pressures of the rising cost of living. Britain is still looking for a durable political economy beyond just the City and the seductive booty of financial services.
In such times, it is the social democratic impulse that provides the best guide, the belief in what political historian Sheri Berman calls “the primacy of politics”.
It is politics and communities that are the forces of history, not economics. To adopt a market economy isn’t to capitulate to a market society. A civilised society requires a strong state, which should not only protect the rights of individuals but also enable them to fulfil their potential. Which isn’t to say that statism should be back in vogue; any strong state shouldn’t dislodge communities and tradition but complement them.
Yet it is patriotism that provides the fuel for the engine of a good society. This doesn’t mean embracing a tribal belief in the superiority of one’s country. There must be room for reason and reflection. But essentially we’re talking about a desire to contribute to the common good and to improve one’s country.
This kind of patriotism sees a national tradition as a living thing – always growing and evolving. It also demands being prepared to criticise your own country when it falls short of being just and good.
Patriotism can sometimes be a vice. National pride doesn’t always express itself as civic virtue. Across Europe, populist parties of the far right and extremist street movements have been growing in strength. Racism and xenophobia continue to thrive. In my own Australia, during the past two decades a reactionary nationalism has seeped into the mainstream consciousness. Since the 2005 Cronulla Beach race riot in Sydney (when a 5,000-strong, flag-waving mob attacked Australians of Middle Eastern appearance), members of the Australian public have embraced the national flag with jingoistic enthusiasm.
A liberal patriotism, however, is about civic solidarity. This is now something societies have to work hard to cultivate in an age of instant gratification and narcissism. Self-enrichment has become the dominant ethos. All this goes to the central challenge for those on the left side of politics. For too long, social democrats have lost touch with the ethical traditions from which they sprang. Reform was no longer a means to an end, but became an end in itself. This has been true not only in Britain. Just as Labour became captured by the technocratic visions of New Labour, so too did its sister party in Australia.
This philosophical vacuum in part explains how it is that Labor governments in Canberra have failed to enjoy sustained popularity. For all that they have achieved – not least, successfully steering the Australian economy through a global recession and introducing a carbon price – they have failed to put together a compelling cultural narrative. Their experience is a reminder that stories matter.
National stories matter especially in multicultural societies, but not in the conservative sense of cultural assimilation. When earlier this year the home secretary Theresa May introduced a revised citizenship test for immigrants, the implication was that cohesion could only be secured if immigrants commanded knowledge of trivia concerning Shakespeare, Trafalgar and Churchill.
Don’t get me wrong. Citizenship tests can be an important ritual in the journey of naturalisation, national histories and cultural literacy matter. But it’s all about nuance. The common ground of citizenship should be defined more by political than by cultural membership.
The most crucial thing is that new citizens understand the rights and responsibilities of belonging to a liberal democracy. And share a public identity.
A more progressive view of nationhood doesn’t exclude cultural diversity. Where one is committed to improving one’s country, one sees in differences a potential source of enriching a national tradition.
This isn’t about having a cultural identikit or crudely appropriating elements of other cultures. It is about recognising there is no one authoritative way to express one’s national identity. For instance, few would suggest there is one musical group that could ever be described to be the definitively British band, even if there may be a body of music that is authentically British. Such pluralism is a source of cultural strength rather than of social weakness.
This is the basic proposition of a nation-building multiculturalism.
It is very different to the kind of fragmentary identity politics associated with the “m-word”. But experiences in countries such as Australia and Canada point to forms of multicultural policy worth emulating (or at least learning from).
As a policy, multiculturalism in those countries embodies an aspiration to citizenship. Being a member of a country should entail the right to express one’s cultural identity and heritage, though this should be accompanied by a responsibility to abide by certain civic values. Multiculturalism hasn’t been about the therapeutic validation of identities or about sanctioning relativism. It has been about securing civic equality.
Many will know this to be the kind of cultural recognition that most immigrant communities are after. It is a demand for inclusion and mutual respect, not separation and privileged treatment. There has been much of this in how multiculturalism in Britain has been practised. The only problem is that it has been undermined by the emphasis on a “community of communities”. It has been an unfortunate concept, for it suggests there could be no common ground but only difference.
At the moment, though, many countries are looking to Britain as an example of a dynamic multicultural society united by a generous patriotism. The Olympic moment provided a glimpse of a modern Britain that can inspire a world still learning to live with diversity. It is a partial, fragile vision. After all, a country can only be at its best when it has virtuous citizens.