A people’s history to replace Old Toryism – the Danny Boyle legacy

Anthony Painter

Danny Boyle claimed not to be pursuing a theory in the Olympics opening ceremony. He wasn’t making a point. And yet old Tory critics are fuming. Most of them behaved themselves but some such as Aidan Burley MP couldn’t help ejaculating their displeasure at the orthodox view of Britishness being completely displaced. This was our national story but not as you’ve heard it before.

The unfamiliar narrative that we saw represented in East London’s Olympic Park on Friday is a view of Britain – or was it England? – that has been quietly buried in our national consciousness by TV history and Establishment Toryism. There were no executions last night. That stands in contrast to the David Starkey view of history. The orthodox view of the people as merely extras in a story of regal supremacy and a march to global domination now seems as peculiar as a gurn on the face of Mr Bean.

It was this island’s people throughout the ages who took centre stage. Somewhere in a beyond the grave humanist socialist nirvana, E.P. Thompson would have been looking on and smiling. Boyle’s history was revolutionary. The innocence of the Shire was replaced with the energetic brutality of Satanic Mills. Tolkien was implicitly referenced and so were William Morris and William Cobbett. Yet, the revolution represented by a Dickensian Willy Wonka-ish Isambard Kingdom Brunel was simply part of our story – not a nostalgic refrain. We weren’t being ushered back to an age of innocence.

As a people’s history, our new national story is respectful of popular institutions. Our monarchy is not there to reign over us. It is there to express us – we have come from somewhere but our institutions are very much about today. In this sense the NHS and the monarchy are similar – they are about who we are and what we value. This modern monarch joins in with the joke. God bless you ma’am. And this is precisely what anti-royal republicanism misses – this is an institution embraced by the people. In Haggerston Park, Hackney (a Borough not noted for its conservatism), the cheers went up for the Queen, James Bond and then the NHS in the order. But it is conversely what the neo-liberal right miss about the NHS – it is ours, we built it and we are not letting it go.

This fanfare for the common man and woman – America’s revolution was ours too as Jonathan Freedland has argued – presents an existential challenge to old Tory politicians, journalists, historians and writers. If we are capable of looking after ourselves then they are rather surplus to requirements. This is no longer about Thomas Carlyle’s great men of history. It’s about millions of great men and women in history and in the present and future. The athletes are some of the most inspiring but the real inspiration comes from we, the people – all of us.

That path of a people striving for justice through time is certainly flavoured with Thomas Paine. It’s a story though that has a past, a remarkable present and unbounded future. The golden thread runs through. There is considerable room in this for the subtle conservatism of Edmund Burke – who, remember, was in favour of the American but not French revolution.

Somewhere along the way Empire was quietly locked away. The slave trade was avoided. World War II was glossed over. This is quite incredible in many ways. Empire and World War II glory are usually front and centre of our national story.

My hunch is while there is still visceral conflict on all these issues to be diplomatically avoided, Boyle was doing something else also. He was refusing to allow us to slump back in the comfy yet frayed armchair of how our national story is normally told. He was challenging us. The Churchill speeches are magnificent but have become too easy a historical crutch. They will keep for another day. The EU was also missing – reflecting our national ambivalence about that relationship.

Of course, there is ambiguity in all of this. What is this nation? Who are ‘the people’? We are English and we are British and we don’t necessarily know the difference between the two for they are marginal. Yet there is a sense of difference. Perhaps we have to accept we are both and hold the dissonance in suspension. We are Londoners and we are East Londoners. We take ourselves too seriously and not very seriously at all. We are engineers and scientists. And yet we are the most creative nation/s on the planet.

Politicians have clumsily tried to describe our national character for years. Suddenly, we have three hours to tell that story of character and achievement. Culture can do what politics seldom can. Last night was an excavation and a reclamation. Old Toryism is left looking small-minded: whining about ‘lefties’ and multiculturalism. They got a shock last night – the country moved on long ago. Danny Boyle got this. He understood who we are and where we can head next.

Old Tory orthodoxy can’t cope with Boyle’s vision – its very foundations are disrupted by it. Modern British Englishness definitely has a place for Conservatives, Liberal, Social Democrats and humanist Socialists where these political perspectives are able to trust the people. Statist paternalism – left or right – has no place in this vibrant civic culture. Boyle cried for freedom and equality in his notes that accompanied the ceremony. It is an equality of dignity and status not one of uniformity that his creativity suggests. Then there are those who seek certainty in ethnic exclusivity will find things tough going – their country no longer exists and their reaction could create terrifying challenges for us all.

Danny Boyle was saying to us: “This is who you are, this is what you have done, this is what you can do.” This fuzzy and snappy nation is an expression of that and also a tool to pursue a common purpose: come together but as ourselves. The hive is dead, long live the hive. Welcome to London, England, Britain 2012.         

More from LabourList


We provide our content free, but providing daily Labour news, comment and analysis costs money. Small monthly donations from readers like you keep us going. To those already donating: thank you.

If you can afford it, can you join our supporters giving £10 a month?

And if you’re not already reading the best daily round-up of Labour news, analysis and comment…