If you had just spent £24 billion on a propaganda campaign that didn’t work, you’d be pretty upset. As the thrum and hubbub of the Olympics spectacle subsides, the two-week cacophony of British nationalism is echoing into silence. The queue of Unionist politicians who had lined up to gloat at the sudden and unexpected demise of the Scottish independence movement are now suddenly quieter.
Setting aside the extraordinary stream of invective poured out against Alex Salmond on twitter, more sober analysis has come from the traditional quarters: Brian Wilson, Douglas Alexander and Labour ‘heavyweights’ were delighted with the jamboree. In The Spectator, London mayor Boris Johnson jeered:
“One of the many happy features of these wonderful Olympics is surely that they have retarded Alex Salmond in his campaign to end the Union.”
Iain Martin writing in the Telegraph wrote:
“One of the most powerful and pleasing images of the last week has been the omnipresence of the Union flag. Winners have wrapped themselves in it and spectators have waved it proudly. For those of us who want the United Kingdom to survive the SNP’s wrecking crew, this is a great sight.”
Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser added:
“We have seen a reclamation of British identity over the last year with the Queen’s Jubilee and the passage of the Olympic torch.”
Tory Struan Stevenson MEP:
“Andy Murray, great Scot and Olympic Champion, holding a gold medal and proudly draped in the Union Jack – eat your heart out Alex Salmond!”
The consensus seemed to be that the collapse in British identity witnessed over the last thirty years was entirely the invention of wily Alex Salmond, and had been vanquished by some strong skulling at ‘Eton Dorney’, as it’s been referred to constantly (or ‘Eton’).
This wasn’t just a blunt British nationalist revival at hand; it was also some sort of national amnesia reinforced by a determined Anglo-Groupthink not witnessed since the untimely demise of the People’s Princess. Even columnists like Jonathan Freedland in these papers seemed gripped by the same collective miasma that’s gathered across the airwaves writing (apparently in seriousness): “The Olympics may mark the end of Britain’s age of decline.”
But today, a new survey has put paid to the lazy but omnipresent media coverage that assumed that the summer of Euro 2012, Diamond Jubilee and Olympics would somehow dissolve thirty years of declining attachment to British identity north of the Tweed.
The Panelbase survey found that in fact 12% of respondents said that the Olympics had made them more likely to vote in favour of independence, as opposed to just 8% of Scots who say they feel more British because of Team GB’s performance. The poll also found that the gap between support for independence and support for the Union is now only nine points – requiring a swing of just 4.5% for a Yes vote in 2014. 35% of Scots say they intend to vote in favour of independence, with 44% saying they intend to vote against.
The poll of almost 800 Scots also showed that 29% believe Scottish athletes should compete for Great Britain after independence while double that, 58%, say Scotland should represent itself.
The findings fly in the face of the now widely established orthodoxy that the London Olympics would create a wave of pro-British sentiment which would make Scots less inclined to vote in favour of independence in 2014. The results suggest otherwise – indeed, quite the opposite.
How could this possibly be? Were these people not also engulfed in the wave of positivity, the collective moment that inspired awestruck tv-viewing and whole families to suddenly be enthralled by rowing and horses dancing to Phil Collins? What’s wrong with these recalcitrant Scots?
We like to tell stories, and we’ve spent the summer telling ourselves a good one. As writer Iain Macwhirter has noted of London 2012:
“It was a romantic vision of a multicultural Britain held together by popular music, self-deprecating humour and dancing NHS nurses. It perhaps bore little relation to the social reality of the UK under the Coalition, but it was a wonderful image – a pop epiphany…And though Danny Boyle’s Britain is a myth, it remains a potent one. It was what persuaded Scots to meekly hand over Scotland’s oil to the British state, in a gesture of almost wilful altruism, in the 1960s and 1970s. The oil revenues did little to sustain social democracy in Britain and were instead used by Margaret Thatcher to finance the destruction of the trades unions and what used to be called the “post-war consensus”. But the old dream dies hard.”
For the last few months you’ve not been able to walk into a shop, cafe or open a newspaper without the Union Jack staring out at you. As one celebration slipped seamlessly into another, this flag was the uniform, the icon, the symbol of unity projected onto the national retina. But an under-reported poll published in May this year might give a clue why. 44% of Scots questioned by YouGov associated the Union flag with racism and extremism. God Save the Queen is still the English national anthem and ‘long to reign over us’, while the missing verses still rankle with ordinary Scots in a way that seems incomprehensible to many English people.
Now the Union flag might be resurrected on the wave of genuine heartfelt goodwill at a superb event, but reality endures. Yes, the Corinthian spirit loomed large; yes, Team GB excelled at all levels. But come September, job losses, NHS break-up and divergence and the private capture of the public sphere will continue apace – started under Labour, finished under the Coalition. No amount of bunting, pyrotechics, choreography or dressage can change that.
As one blogger notices, even the claims of Scottish inclusion and success as proof of the union dividend seem to dissolve under any scrutiny.
But, say some, it’s not the games that matter – it’s the aftermath, the legacy. This will be, we’re told, the cultural event that heralds in the new era. Writing in the Guardian, Seamus Milne hopes:
“If nothing else, the spectacular failure of G4S, the world’s largest security firm, to get even close to meeting its Olympics contract should at least bury the fantasy that private companies are more efficient than the public sector.”
We’ll see. This would depend on there being a political vehicle to make that happen. But with Labour lurching again to the right, there is no English parliamentary project to speak of.
It’s sacrilege to say this, but Jules Boykoff wrote before the event that this is “celebration capitalism” – disaster capitalism’s affable cousin. What might explain the failure to rekindle a British Unity of any depth is that what really stirred people was the humane endeavour, not the flag or the drum-banging state broadcasters. Faith in that spirit does not divide those who want to transform their countries. But if this is to be heralded as a triumph for Boris, Cameron and Lord Coe, the gap between myth and reality will be unbridgeable.
The reality is that the Unionists’ celebration of the power of Olympic myth-making is short-lived. It was so shrill and intense because there is so little substance behind their story. That was it.