In a low, dishonest decade, there was only one real high point: 2012. If the decade has been one of division, anger, hyperbole and hysteria, 2012 offered us a glimpse of a different way of doing things — a way to reconcile our history and our future, our diversity and our patriotism, our ambition and our compassion. I’m talking about the London Olympics. If there are answers to the political culture war that is eating our democracy, that is where we will find them.
You probably think I’m overdoing the value of a bit of sport and the dancing and pyrotechnics of the opening ceremony. I’m not. But let me first persuade you that the identity politics culture war is one of the biggest problems of our age. Then I’ll explain why those Olympics were a model solution.
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Of course, politics and identity have always been intricately linked. For many voters, their choice of party is linked to their sense of who they are, be that a member of the working class, an entrepreneur, a public servant, or a revolutionary. The thing we now condemn as “identity politics” started somewhere better: it brought us civil rights, women’s liberation, gay rights, and with them a generational shift towards individual freedom of which we should all be proud. The Paralympic movement wouldn’t exist without this kind of identity politics, which fought to prove all kinds of human experience and endeavour have value.
But those triumphs come into question when celebrating your group’s identity morphs into rejecting other groups’ right to exist or make change. The same arguments that used to liberate historically oppressed groups are now being used by white power leaders and men’s’ rights activists to reverse those gains. This new kind of identity politics, which exists on the Left and the Right, is all about closing down debate and denying voice to anyone who isn’t like you. It denies the simple truth articulated most brilliantly by Jo Cox: that we have more things in common than things that divide us. And it makes it almost impossible to make progress as a nation, because everyone’s at war with everyone else, unable to trust each other.
Nations need a demos — a way of being together, under a common flag, with a common direction and identity — if they are to feel the sense of solidarity on which we build public services and the rule of law. In other words, we need to vaguely like each other if we’re to pay taxes, and follow rules, that benefit other people. Identity politics eats away at that sense that we all belong.
As Francis Fukuyama put it: “Democratic societies are fracturing into segments based on ever-narrower identities, threatening the possibility of deliberation and collective action by society as a whole. This is a road that leads only to state breakdown and, ultimately, failure.”
So, rebuilding a common sense of identity is the greatest challenge facing our current leaders. And it isn’t easy. We are diverse: racially, religiously, culturally, geographically. Our economic and cultural lives are atomising: gone are the days when we all shopped on the same high street, watched the same television channels, and worshipped in the same churches. We must not erase the multiplicity of human experience: we need instead to find a story that can contain it all.
And Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony showed us that we can do it. Yes, it was a bit sentimental. But a national story needs a good dose of sentiment. And that opening ceremony (watch the video again: it’s worth your time) contained everything you’d want in a vision of modern Britain. Creativity. Optimism. Technological aspiration. It was unafraid of embracing diversity yet relaxed about being distinctly British, rooted in our unique land and unique history. It revelled in the absurd counterpoint between our two favourite national symbols: the feudalism of our monarchy and the socialism of our NHS. And it was full of ironic humour, surely the most vital pillar of what it might mean (or should mean) to be British.
You can’t, of course, govern in a dance routine. Our dear old Queen can’t leap out of helicopters on a regular basis. If you think visual symbols are less important than facts and policies I’m afraid you are probably a robot. What we see in the world profoundly shapes the way we feel about the world. That’s why Lindsay Hoyle put the wigs back on the Commons clerk this week: to symbolise a new era. It’s why we talk about blue passports. Rainbow flags. Poppies. Images resonate into our brains far more than words ever can.
We are often told that politics has moved on from the battles between Left and Right that characterised most of the last century. That these days, the argument is between open and closed — David Goodhart calls them anywheres and somewheres; Stephen Kinnock calls them cosmopolitans and communitarians. Certainly, in the last decade, the biggest political fights have been on this axis, Brexit most of all. But 2012 was the year that showed us most clearly that this is not a fight we need to have.
Heart and head can rule together. You can love Britain and see our faults. You can love the Queen and be a democrat. You can love the NHS and believe in a market economy. You can love your family more than strangers and believe in universal human rights. You can listen to facts and listen to instinct. We human beings are full of contradictions and confusion, and we’re at our best when our rational capacity is given force and purpose by our emotions.
The next great Prime Minister will not be a champion for open or for closed. They will be the one who finds a way to bridge that divide, and a way to make us all feel as welcome under that single flag — just as our Olympic team did, parading into that Stratford stadium in 2012.