After Beijing: can only dictatorships dazzle?

What Beijing’s opening ceremony and London’s handover ceremony reveal about China and Britain. PLUS: Londoners gear up for 2012.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

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Here, Brendan O’Neill challenges the idea that only totalitarian regimes can pull off big, bright, spectacular sporting ceremonies. Further below, Patrick Hayes reports from the ‘handover celebrations’ in east London.

Does being free and democratic also mean being naff? Reading the coverage of the London 2012 handover ceremony, you could be forgiven for thinking so.

Everyone recognises that the British ceremony at the end of the Beijing Games was mortifyingly awful. I mean, Leona Lewis in a 12-foot metallic dress? Jimmy Page sweating buckets on guitar? David Beckham kicking a ball in the wrong direction and almost knocking over a Chinese acrobat? As for the big red bus – perhaps that was included as the one recognisable symbol of modern Britain, since, in the words of one catty Chinese journalist, the British performers certainly ‘weren’t famous enough’ to be known in China.

And yet there has been an outbreak of bizarre backslapping over how wonderfully rubbish the British ceremony was – because apparently it is in the nature of democracy to be rubbish. The Sun gushed over our ‘eight barmy, brilliant minutes’ in which we showed that, in 2012, we won’t try to ‘emulate China’s ruthlessly organised, flawlessly delivered, bank-breaking exhibitionism’; instead we’ll have a ‘touch of British eccentricity, a pinch of irony, and a little self-deprecating humour’.

One columnist said the handover ceremony may have been a mess but it showed that we are ‘world class’ in our own little way. Unlike the Chinese we don’t do ‘interminable patriotic songs’ and ‘goose-stepping martial processions’ (yeah, you Nazis!), but instead prefer the ‘creative quirkiness and good humour that are perhaps our greatest national assets of all’.

And you know what? Being quirky, being naff, being incapable of agreeing on an Olympian representation of what it means to be British… all of this is glorious evidence of our free and open way of life. Allegedly. A British columnist in America says of course the London Olympics will not resemble the Beijing Games, ‘not in choreography, not in pyrotechnics, not in quantities of identically dressed, super-coordinated dancers, and not in suppression of political dissidents either’. And that is because we, unlike China, are free, which means our Games will be ‘a lot less sinister, a lot less damaging and a lot more fun’.

The transformation of an amateurish eight-minute handover ceremony into a symbol of British fair play – what we might call snatching victory from the jaws of televised international shame – shows that Britain is certainly world class at one thing: demented self-flattery. If there were an event in Making A Virtue of Moral Decay, Britain would win gold, silver and bronze.

Since the Beijing Games began, with that awesome opening ceremony directed by Zhang Yimou, British officials and commentators have affected a snooty, aloof attitude towards China’s Olympian displays. You might expect a has-been world power like Britain to feel a little red-faced about the fact that China has pulled off a pretty spectacular Games while the rest of the world is asking: ‘How will London, where the buses don’t even run on time, follow that?’ But instead, British observers have presented China’s mind-blowing ceremonies as symbols of its moral turpitude, and our own widely anticipated organisational ineptitude as evidence of our moral superiority. Such a topsy-turvy interpretation of events really is an Olympian achievement.

No sooner had the fireworks fizzled from the sky (and yes, yes, no sooner had those evil computers that faked some of the fireworks been switched off) than British observers were telling us that something like Beijing’s opening ceremony can only really be pulled off under a wicked dictatorship. Only a totalitarian regime can get so many people together, train them hard, and make them perform as one in a gobsmacking global event.

The Daily Telegraph described the ceremony as ‘the kind of operation that is so much easier in a totalitarian regime’. Sebastian Coe, chairman of the London 2012 Olympic Committee, said such ceremonies are really only doable in ‘countries with little democracy’. He also recalled the look of shock on the Beijing mayor’s face when he told him that the 2012 Committee is still waiting to hear from a planning inquiry in Stratford, London before it can build certain things. (I’m sorry, but I am also shocked by that. You’ve only got four years left Coe, for Christ’s sake.)

This idea that only dictatorships can dazzle, while democracies must inevitably consult, be cautious and think about people’s feelings, is widespread today. Beyond the Olympics, some argue that the reason why Britain isn’t constructing many epoch-defining skyscrapers or new airports these days – while in Beijing new buildings appear as if from nowhere and the largest airport terminal on Earth was built in 1,371 days – is because We are civilised and thus cautious, while They, so totalitarian and barbaric, can force through anything they want, from a fancy new skyscraper to a ceremony executed with military precision. Indeed, one commentator says Britain is ‘paralysed by democracy’ while the Chinese authorities are ‘free’ (ironic?) to do whatever they please.

This, of course, is nonsense on stilts. Modern Britain is not paralysed by democracy, but by indecision. The reason British officialdom interminably consults on everything, from building Olympic venues to constructing a third runway at Heathrow, is because it is shot through with the politics of precaution, risk-aversion, and a crippling concern about the impact of all things manmade on the environment.

Often, indeed, our decade-long consultation procedures make a mockery of democracy, disingenuously presenting special-interest complaints – from green groups and other NIMBYists – as a ‘people’s opposition’ to new developments, when in fact they essentially embody the elite’s own doubt about moving in a certain direction. Now, these deathly consultations are held up as paragons of democracy in contrast to the Chinese.

Likewise, what many refer to as our wonderful Olympics-related ‘free speech’ – unlike in censorious China – is really a public outpouring of indecision about the 2012 Games and whether it is worth hosting such a silly, exorbitantly expensive sporting event. Reading the half-embarrassed, half-proud coverage of our handover ceremony, and media doubt more broadly about the 2012 Games, Anne Applebaum enthuses: ‘Thank you, Britain, for giving the world the gift of nasty, negative, snarky journalism, along with the culture of free speech that sustains it.’ So where Britain’s cautiousness about modernity is dolled up as ‘democracy’, its official bickering over the 2012 Games is hailed as a global gift of ‘free speech’.

This amounts to making a global virtue of Britain’s political crisis. In claiming that only totalitarian regimes can be inspiring, while democratic states must be sensible and small-scale, British observers actually denigrate democracy and freedom. They present these ideals, not as liberating things that might push society forward, but as hampering and even paralysing institutions, which necessarily force us to rein in our ambitions and hold society back.

It may be true that the lack of democratic representation in China means its officials can put more pressure on workers and performers. But the myth that democracy, rather than the essentially undemocratic instincts of our alienated elite, is currently ‘paralysing’ Britain shows that many British observers know and understand the democratic ideal as little as their Stalinist counterparts in Beijing. History shows us that democratic societies – confident and properly democratic societies, in touch with the people and possessed of political vision – are capable of enthusing the masses and organising spectacular events, if they put their mind to it.

The difference between Beijing’s opening and closing ceremonies and Britain’s handover ceremony revealed little about the differing levels of democracy between China and Britain, but a lot about contrasting cultural attitudes. Beijing’s ceremonies, big, bright and in tune with Chinese history (well, some of it), revealed a nation that feels relatively comfortable with modernity and confident about the future. Britain’s ceremony – which was really only a snapshot of an ordinary day in wet, multicultural London – spoke to a society that cannot see beyond the here and now, and which possibly feels alienated from its past and incapable of etching out a future. For British officials to pose as superior to China precisely because they’re less well-organised and more self-deprecating is a kind of imperialism-in-reverse, where our very uselessness gives us the moral authority to look down our noses at suspiciously impressive China.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

by Patrick Hayes

‘Our Olympics are going to be bigger and better. There’s going to be more crowds, there’s going to be more medals and more celebrations…’ So says Kadem, a teenager from Hackney in east London. He follows up with a sincere declaration that he is going to spend the next four years ensuring that he’s there, sprinting in the 100m and 200m for ‘Team GB’.

While sportsmen paraded to a soundtrack of trendy rock bands in front of 40,000 people on The Mall in central London, Kadem was one of a crowd of nearly a thousand people gathered together on Sunday in Shoreditch Park in Hackney – one of the boroughs where the 2012 Games will be held – to watch the Olympic handover ceremony on a giant TV screen.

Round the corner in Hoxton Street, a ‘1948 street party’ was taking place to commemorate the last time the Olympics were hosted by London. People donned vintage clothing, drank tea and joined the London Swing Dance Society. Those Games, the first following the end of the Second World War, were dubbed the ‘Austerity Olympics’.

However, few Hackneyites at the Shoreditch handover celebrations, enjoying some sun after the morning rainclouds had cleared, wanted the 1948 Games to be a model for 2012. One exception was Lorraine Callow, who explained, apologetically, that she had come for the music: ‘I don’t like the Olympics. We can’t afford it. The money should be spent on education, council projects or health. London 2012 should be low key, professional and we should do away with the razzmatazz.’

Iris Satchell voiced similar concerns about the amount of money that will be spent on the 2012 Games; she thinks prices will go up across London as a result. Accepting that Londoners were now committed, however, she threw her hands up and declared: ‘But, as we are hosting it, we’ve got to be the best.’

Revellers were in no doubt that the Chinese had set the bar high with the Beijing Olympics, but there was a strong sense that the London 2012 Olympics should not merely equal the Beijing Games, but better them. Numerous foreigners at the handover event shared this view. Regina, visiting from Brazil, noted that ‘the atmosphere in London has become noticeably more exciting. The British people should definitely put on a Games to rival Beijing and are more than capable of it.’

Even an Aussie, Dave Cooke, seemed to be pleased for the Brits: ‘It’s great to see the Brits finally learning from the Aussies, not just saying “it’s the taking part that counts” and investing properly in the sport and starting to get some medals.’

The successes by the British team over the last week of the Beijing Games have inspired many. ‘Team GB’ won 19 gold medals and finished fourth in the medals table – a somewhat astonishing performance for a country that is normally lucky to scrape into the top 10. Almost everyone I spoke to pointed to this success as their main reason for being optimistic about the Olympics in 2012. Even the deputy mayor of Hackney, Jamie Carswell, who mainly emphasised the way in which the Olympics will help regenerate the area, inspire young people and celebrate diversity, admitted: ‘These Olympics have shown what can be achieved by taking them seriously, not just trying hard and losing.’

Paul, a Liverpudlian who now lives in Stoke Newington, argued: ‘During the first week it was like “Yeah, yeah, another British failure: Medals? What medals?” But the second week, it’s been like: “Wow another bloody gold! What’s going on?”‘

No one, however, seemed more relieved by the success than Kieran from Walthamstow: ‘Every time I look at that [2012] logo it’s so embarrassing. It’s done by people who are trying to give the impression they are young and cool and it just looks sad. It’s like that old guy playing guitar next to Leona Lewis. But it’s been really cool over the last week. I’ve been watching stuff I didn’t even know was sports… Even if the whole logo and stuff is terrible, I hope we can shrug it off and say “yeah but we’ve won like 50 golds”‘.

Although this all suggests that a mood of cynicism can be transformed by an unexpected demonstration of sporting excellence, a newly found faith in the abilities of Team GB has not translated into a faith in the organisers of the 2012 Games. While Liverpudlian Paul said they will probably ‘pull it out of the bag’, he expressed concern over ‘the government’s ability to organise and inspire people. I was at the Sydney Olympics and there was a real chilled out, celebratory mood all over… Tens of thousands of people volunteered to help. The [London] organising committee has to get people committed. They need to hear what the vision is. The mood is great here at the moment: We need to keep it up.’

Unfortunately, it appears the official vision for 2012 is drawing inspiration from the ‘Austerity Olympics’. Lord Coe, chairman of the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, said after the handover ceremony in Beijing: ‘I think we accept that it is unlikely you will see a Games on this size and scale and stature again… The IOC… reached the conclusion that the focus must be much more on sustainability, that big is not necessarily better.’ (1)

And despite the post-ceremony bravado that London will match Beijing ‘in its own sweet way’, London mayor Boris Johnson recently claimed on BBC Radio: ‘We have to be quite honest, we really can’t compete … we are not there to try and surpass what China has done. We’ve got to manage expectations down.’ (2) Even plans for a more ‘fun’ and ‘open’ Olympics seem already to be on the rocks, after the planned ‘Welcome Home’ greetings at Heathrow were cancelled due to ‘safety fears’. (3)

Epitomising the spirit of high expectations at the Hackney handover was Tania from London Fields. She was talking about her ambitions to take up the javelin ‘ready to compete in 2012’, when she broke off mid-sentence to point at a golden tower of dancers from the closing ceremony in Beijing: ‘Look what the Chinese are doing! Look at that! If China can do all this, we can. It’s going to be huge and billions of people will be looking at Hackney like we’re looking at the Bird’s Nest stadium now. We’ve got to give them something big.’

If the mood at the handover celebrations in Hackney is anything to go by, then Boris’s aim of ‘managing expectations down’ will be a tough task over the next four years. He would do better to take his lead from the British Olympic team and channel its energy into trying to surpass expectations instead.

Patrick Hayes is a member of the organising committee of the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 1&2 November.

(1) London set to rival Beijing in “own sweet way”, Yahoo! News, 24 August 2008
(2) Whatever happened to Britain’s unlikely lads?, Sydney Morning Herald, 23 August 2008
(3) Athletes’ airport welcome cancelled over safety fears, Guardian, 24 August 2008

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