The Olympic opening ceremony was beautiful, the stuff of dreams played out in Stratford.
It was the confidence of it all that was perhaps most inspiring: the willingness to be true to idiosyncratic Britain rather than worrying about comparisons with Beijing four years ago; the readiness to address our past, for good and bad; the choice not simply to be spectacular, but also to be thoughtful, poignant and funny. More than anything, the ceremony portrayed 'national security' in the truest sense of that term - a country content with itself.
The security that was portrayed was particularly striking for me because it contrasted so markedly with the Britain I found while writing British Voices. I met over a thousand people as I researched the book, and while they were almost universally kind, decent and warm, they were also very uneasy. Most of their anxieties focused on the economy: parents worried about supporting their children and saving for the future; students worried about rising debts and fewer opportunities; pensioners worried about choosing between heating their homes and feeding themselves. But the Britain I found on my travels was also anxious about identity, values and heritage in a rapidly changing, liberal, atomised society; concerned about our place in the world as China, India and others surge forward; and worried that in these tumultuous times, there seem to be fewer role models, leaders and institutions to rely on than there once were.
Hosting the Olympics will not solve these problems but the Opening Ceremony might give us an idea of what true national security looks like and the kind of country we might aspire to be: secure enough in our past to embrace it and learn from it rather than mythologise or ignore it; confident enough to laugh at ourselves, our weaknesses, foibles and eccentricities; trusting enough to build stronger relationships in our communities and in doing so to face an uncertain future together. More than anything, the dream-like ceremony and its warm afterglow give us a sense of what it might feel like if we were more secure as a nation. It may have been fleeting and dream-like, but let us not forget what it feels when things go right nationally, when the country's mood is less cynical, when we give a good account of ourselves to the world. When the party is over, there will be much hard work to be done to address our anxieties and to rebuild our sense of community; for now, let us enjoy the Britain we saw and felt last night and not forget the dream of the secure, happy nation that we might strive to be.
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