The Olympics and Britain's Role in the World

I've never been the greatest enthusiast for London 2012 but I'll come clean... I enjoyed the Olympics opening ceremony despite trying really hard to discover things to sneer about.

I've never been the greatest enthusiast for London 2012 but I'll come clean... I enjoyed the Olympics opening ceremony despite trying really hard to discover things to sneer about. The concept worked well, the choreography was superb and the fact that Conservative MP Aidan Burley found it "leftie multi-cultural crap" made me warm to it even more. Perhaps, as Andrew Gilligan suggested, in a recent Daily Telegraph article, I've been 'suckered' into overlooking the association of the Olympics with human rights abuse and the £9.3 billion that might have been better spent on projects that benefit the whole country or on mitigating some of the social harm caused by unprecedented public spending cuts.

However, this aside, what really interested me about the opening ceremony was the question of how Britain should present itself to world and just what it is we'd like to be known for? This must have been a tricky one for Danny Boyle. The choice of the Industrial Revolution, British music, the World Wide Web, multiculturalism, the military and the NHS seemed to reflect a compromise of sorts between the differing visions of just what makes Britain great.

Although these qualities are all worth celebrating, what seemed to be missing, at what is an inescapably global event, was a clearer projection of how Britain sees its international role. The legacy of British imperialism, combined with more recent ill-advised foreign policy adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan makes this a rather difficult one and the UK's international role perhaps not something the organisers would want to brag about.

Celebrating a Britain that works to support human rights, helps those in need, whether refugees or developing countries, and acts as a good international citizen would be my personal choice for this type of vision. Equally, others might prefer to celebrate Britain's historic expertise as an imperial power, dominating populations across Africa and South Asia, or its more recent aptitude for military interventionism...each to their own, I suppose. Nevertheless, each represents an understanding of what the UK's international role was, is and might be in the future. If we can celebrate a selective account of British culture, social policy or (historic) industrial growth, why can't we also celebrate a vision of the UK's wider role in the world?

New Labour had a crack at defining a global vision for the UK in the 1990s with the idea that Britain should be a 'force for good' in the world. Although their 'foreign policy with an ethical dimension' came rather unstuck over the War on Terror and the Iraq War, there was nevertheless an attempt to craft a vision of the UK's global role around support for human rights, development and poverty reduction. More recent foreign policy pronouncements have continued with some elements of this vision but have also harked back to the pursuit of British national interests above other concerns.

It might well be the case that the general public simply isn't all that interested in international affairs or at least has a fairly insular view. Looking at the current e-petitions directed to the Government this does seem apparent, with opposition to immigration, EU membership, alongside the perennial concern about fuel duty are amongst the best supported. A vision of the UK's global role might also have been seen as 'too political' for the Olympics, although the Games themselves have often been the most politicised of international sporting events - Berlin 1936, Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984 are all notable here.

It isn't the job of Olympic opening ceremonies to define either national identity or the foreign policy vision of a country. However, as a mass viewed artistic performance, it does present an opportunity to consider how we see ourselves as a society and the way in which we should engage with the rest of the world. In an increasingly interconnected world, a clearer vision of Britain's international role and the kind of international citizen it wishes to be should be an important topic for public debate and one in which we should all take an interest.

We don't all have to agree on this vision, just as we rarely agree on everything that happens domestically. However, the process of thinking and talking about the UK's direction in the world might help us to better understand the ways in which global politics affects our daily lives, to ensure that we hold those in power accountable for what the UK does internationally, and to work out how we feature as citizens both of the UK and of a wider human community.


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