As the Queen sailed up the Thames this year she unwittingly summed up exactly what it means to be British today. The flotilla itself was the perfect symbolism of where we find ourselves as a nation right now; it began with all kinds of pomp, pageantry and manufactured festivity, and then it was ruined by the rain. As I, and thousands like me, hid in the shops and pubs that line our great river we had that all too familiar feeling that we wished we had just stayed at home. Within the space of an hour or so of rain we had seen the spectacle of the British state, which had been flapping its flags and flaunting its colours like a proud peacock, being reduced to a damp rain-soaked squib.
Back up the road in my home country of Scotland there was little to shout about. Of the 9500 street parties that happened across the UK only 60 were in Scotland (0.60%), and 20 of those were organised by the Orange Order. Was this lack of enthusiasm for British triumphalism a one-off blip? We'll soon find out.
Even as a supporter of the Olympics there are times when I find it hard to see what most people in London are getting from them, other than a great deal of inconvenience, G4S related ridicule and severely delayed transport. However, I find it even harder to see what the rest of the country is supposed to be getting. Sure, we may all have gone out to watch the torch, but we have paid over £14 billion as a nation and we aren't even being given the pleasure of seeing David Beckham kicking a ball for Team GB.
I don't get the impression that people outside London are angry about the Olympics, I don't see any evidence that anyone is particularly against them or wants them to flop, but I don't see any evidence of enthusiasm for them either, and the thousands of unsold tickets for events in Glasgow and Cardiff only add to that feeling. A recent BBC poll found that 74% of people do not think that the rest of Britain will benefit from the games, with the poll showing Scotland, Wales and northern England as the areas where Olympic enthusiasm is at its lowest. Like the Jubilee, it feels as if the Olympics are more of a regional celebration than a national one.
At the same time Britain is coming under increasing pressure to review our relations with the rest of Europe, and more importantly the people of Scotland are preparing to vote in a referendum that could end the United Kingdom as we know it. The stakes are high for both sides, but even if the unionists are to win the immediate battle (which is what the polls are indicating at this early stage) then it seems unlikely that they can ever win the war. The key point which has come out in the debate about Scotland's future is that in domestic terms the country is on a very different political trajectory from the parliament in Westminster. Rightfully or wrongly (and I think rightfully) the parliament are pursuing a more traditionally social democratic model of governance rather than the classically neo-liberal one of the government down here. This difference was perhaps epitomised last April when on the same day as prescription charges were abolished in Scotland they reached a record price in England.
Whatever the result, the current settlement is not a sustainable one; the coalition government only have the backing of one third of voters in Scotland (according to the 2010 General Election results, although the Scottish elections last year were far harsher) and the Tories have only one MP in the entire country. On top of this, polls suggest that English and Welsh voters are keener to see Scotland going it alone than Scots are. All of the parties who support the union are starting to demand extra powers for the Scottish Parliament, and all polling suggests the public wants the same thing. After less than 15 years the devolved parliaments have already gained significant powers, so does anyone really expect the current settlement to be the end of the road for British federalism?
If Scots choose to become independent then short of a Royal Baby these games may be the last official celebration that these island shares. This summer was supposed to be a highpoint in 21st century Britishness and a chance for the people of these islands to rally together and unite as one, but at the moment it feels more like a not very glorious last hurrah of a fractured and increasingly incompatible and irrelevant political union. Once the post Olympic bunting has come down what will we be left with? A bunch of empty sports venues, a £multi-billion debt and an increasingly disunited kingdom.
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