If the Games taught us anything it is that daring to be different can work. Let’s take the same approach to stimulus
The prime minister says “Team GB’s work is done”, and that “now it’s GB’s turn”. What does he mean? David Cameron identified the Olympic contribution to the nation’s psyche as, variously, ingenuity, joy, friendship, tolerance, eccentricity, welcome and inspiration. He wins a gold for abstract nouns, but there is truth in them. The London Olympics delivered its undeniable panache by throwing a large amount of money at a small number of people who were set a simple goal. They delivered. But can such delivery be generalised across the political economy? Every commentator declares this to be obligatory, yet none says how. The national brain seems stuck on a narcotic high.
At first sight, the idea of building a stronger economy on physical fitness is dangerous nonsense. The Third Reich and communist dictators showed that. Sport is a personal pastime, not a fascistic mobilisation. Nor is sport an economic good. Cameron assumes that in some sense it can deliver one. He attributes Olympic success to two things, competitive spirit and volunteering, which he now declares must change the country for good. Tony Blair added his characteristic descant, adding “We have imbibed deeply of the Olympic spirit … in throwing timidity to the winds we have rediscovered a spirit that is our own“. Every comment on the Games repeats this line, as if Olympic spirit was a subset of whirling-dervish fundamentalism.
Nobody says what this is supposed to mean. Experience is unequivocal. There is no transference from news events to national behaviour. The gloom of royal funerals or football defeats, the joy of royal weddings and victories, always entails “nothing will be the same again”, but this soon dissipates. Los Angeles and Barcelona rose and Sydney and Athens fell after their Games, but no causal relationship has ever been detected. There is no external benefit from sporting success, even in football-mad cities. Time passes. Ardour cools. Even the media, which left its collective brain in volleyball sand for the duration, will revert to type.
Yet we assume Cameron and Blair are not cynics, and can at some point attach meaning to their abstractions. Reading the few newspaper pages not devoted to the Olympics last week, I tried to transfer “inspiration” into real life. Could Cameron’s volunteering spirit deploy sports stars to enforce asbos? Could the army take up beat-policing, at which they seem adept? Ethnic diversity and the status of women have been given a boost. The competitive spirit may not need emphasis in financial services, but there is no harm in sharpening the nation’s edge – if Cameron could only say how.
The idea that the world’s importers would suddenly buy neglected British goods and services because they saw London on television must be facile. Cameron said British companies could somehow win £13bn worth of contracts for future Olympics. But they won few for this one. He seems unaware that the 2012 venues were largely the work of the American firm, CH2M Hill, who have already won the Qatar World Cup and, on the strength of London, should also dominate Rio. Henry V may have won Agincourt with a speech, but England lost the hundred years war. It seems fanciful to imagine Britons who spent two weeks glued to the TV will, like Stakhanovites, suddenly meet higher norms in car production, healthcare and financial arbitrage.
The nearest to a hint of a transferable Olympicism came not from Cameron but from Blair. He declared that a unique feature of the London games was their “playing unsafe”, their eccentric daring. While the closing ceremony was dreadful, like a tired pop industry video, the opening was superb. It was daredevil, inventive, funny and self-mocking. Like the draconian training of the cyclists, the real stars of Britain’s performance, it was a gamble that paid off.
Britain knows it can deploy eccentricity to make people happy for a short while. I would leave it at that. But the government message is for something more, something to make people produce and consume more, and thus haul the nation out of recession.
It has indeed shown it can spend lavishly when it chooses, hundreds of millions spent on a few buildings, on winning medals and entertaining the world. If government can dare £9.3bn to stimulate a transient event, surely it can do likewise to stimulate the economy. This is not a matter of bankers going for gold in lending to businesses or Whitehall officials shooting regulations out of the sky. The daring of which Blair speaks should be deployed intellectually in unblocking the logjam now afflicting the Treasury and the Bank of England. I would give the “legacy” not to Lord Coe but to Danny Boyle, and cycling’s Dave Brailsford. Both took vast dollops of public cash and spent it with spectacular results in new and exciting ways.
British economic policy is like the Olympic Park without the athletes. It is barren of activity and incident. More than £325bn has been “injected into the economy” by the Bank of England, money that has gone nowhere near the economy. It is sitting in a bank vault. My Olympics legacy would be to get it out and inject it properly. With the economy deep in a liquidity trap, it needs an inventive genius like Boyle, who can blow £60m in just three hours of happiness. As Bob Geldof would have said, had he been invited, “just spend the effing money”.
The best Olympic legacy would be to return to taxpayers the cash Coe demanded they give him seven years ago on which he promised “a profit”. It would take the form of the Bank of England creating £1,000 for every family and injecting it into bank balances this autumn, with an order to go out and spend it before Christmas. Such “unconventional monetarism” is now gaining traction. It was hinted at this week by Adam Posen, retiring member of the Bank’s monetary policy committee, in criticising his colleagues for their “anguished religious ethics” over quantitative easing.
Such so-called helicopter money is daring and eccentric. It would require the printing of some £20bn of new money, not far off what the Olympics probably cost in spending and lost economic activity. But it would feed directly into the economy where it’s most needed: in boosting high street spending. It would aid a demand-starved economy, and certainly keep that Olympic smile on every face.