How Britain rediscovered its forgotten confidence

Spectators are guided by volunteers

The UK's national conversation is conducted in sceptical tones but for a few months we have talked in cheerful, optimistic voices. Have we changed our default position for good?

It was a "glorious summer".

Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,

Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.

(Richard III, Shakespeare)

The tone of our national conversation changed - from its default position of self-criticism and negativity, Britain found itself speaking with a cheerful and optimistic voice.

There was a moment when it seemed the British press decided as one that the country wanted to be positive about the Games. Stories of lost coach drivers, missing security staff, chaotic public transport and diplomatic incidents over flags were no longer given space. The editor demanded uplifting tales of Olympian heroics and organisational triumph.

The UK's busy summer

Crowds waving flags

Instead of mounting barbed steeds

To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,

He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber

To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.

(Richard III)

It was an extraordinary shift.

We view our world through frames of understanding, the boundaries fixed by agreed narrative. Until mid-July, the story of London 2012 had been shaped by an accepted wisdom that the Games were hubristic extravagance at a time of austerity - not only a colossal waste of money but an event that would expose the shortcomings of a second-rate nation.

Something altered that frame, re-worked its carpentry to fit a different tale. Was it the sight of large crowds braving horizontal rain and sharp winds to cheer the torch relay on its journey to Stratford? Was it the absence of chaos on the capital's roads, Fleet Street's finest discovering that London still functioned (even if it had taken wads of cash handed to public transport staff)?

Or was it that the head of advertising reminded editorial just how much the paper had invested in its Olympic pull-outs and supplements? (Whoops! I am in danger of slipping into pre-summer cynicism.)

Whatever it was, with a ceremony conducted by a now complicit media, London 2012 was woven into the "civil religion" of the nation - afforded the same reverence as flag and anthem. Criticism became almost unpatriotic and those that continued to carp found their words lost on the winds of success and praise.

Olympic volunteer jokes with spectators

British summertime is always different from the mean time of the Westminster calendar. With the benches empty, the adversarial point-scoring of daily politics is absent too. That does change the tone of national argument and debate. But the summer of 2012 took the discussion into a different space.

It was as though our ancient country looked in the mirror and noticed something which belied the thin lips and wrinkled countenance staring back. There was kindliness and fun, self-confidence and competence in twinkling eyes, a look it had almost forgotten it ever had.

From the opening of the Olympics to the closing of the Paralympics, Britain banished all traces of a scowl and adopted a welcoming smile. It was not some Micawberesque optimism or ghastly forced grin, but a joyous recognition that our country is a whole lot better than we had allowed ourselves to say.

I think attitudes may have changed for good. This summer has reminded us of the values we know lie at the core of our national character: tolerance, charity and general goodwill.

At the weekend, as the Olympic stadium overflowed with fun and Paralympian admiration, I was watching another London stage where disability was portrayed as an explanation for evil ambition rather than a motivation for sporting triumph.

Mark Rylance as Richard III at the Globe theatre

Mark Rylance's Richard III scuttled across the boards of the Globe Theatre, his withered arm symbolising a malevolent soul.

I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,

Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,

Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time

Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,

And that so lamely and unfashionable

That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;

(Richard III)

The play is a reminder of centuries of street prejudice against those with disabilities. Today, in the golden shadow of the Games, I wonder whether hostility or patronising pity has been replaced by respect and empathy.

The success of the Games Makers has perhaps changed attitudes towards voluntarism - a recognition that it is a vital part of public life, a platform for displaying the generosity of spirit and individuality that are central to British life.

The summer may also have made us more self-confident, reminding a country which will need to draw on its stores of resilience that it has much to be proud of: organisational ability; creative talent; the skills to nurture sporting excellence; a sense of humour.

Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths.

(Richard III)

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    To number 20, spot on. I dare say that even as I type, Ed Milliband is calling for a full and public parliamentary inquiry into your comments....and the price of brussel sprouts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    This kind of media brainwashing makes my skin crawl.


  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    We have always been a confident nation, with our history how could we not be? Look at the long list of great people to come from these shores, from Shakespeare to Stephen Hawking. Look at the list of great inventions made in GB from penicillin to the internet and everything between. Just look it up. We punch well above our weight in all sorts of things that politics and the media have forgotten.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    It would be good to see a political system that builds on the strengths of the country.

    Instead of bashing the party opposite and cheap point-scoring, let`s have a constructive attempt to solve the problems, particularly the economic situation.

    Seb Coe to lead a government of all the talents!

    And the rest of us to stop whining and critiising their efforts.

    A positive attitude works wonders.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    "We view our world through frames of understanding, the boundaries fixed by agreed narrative"

    I assume you mean metropolitan journalists quoting a metropolitan playwright. They will quickly return to framing things as 'muddling through', at the moment named 'omnishambles' and celebrating surprise at minor triumphs while wallowing in disasters.

    Shakespeare indeed!

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Human nature will in the end override being British. In a few months time it will be the same people who always volunteer and the same fully able body people will be taking the disable parking spaces in the supermarket and abusing the blue badge in their car. People's attitudes are like a spongy ball squeeze it and changes shape, release it and it goes back to its original shape.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Rediscovered our confidence?

    I was not aware it had gone.

    I will grant you that the whole Olympic thing is being spun for all it is worth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    The only fear is that when parliament starts again, and the relentless display of unruly and childish behaviour is in it is reported; all this matched only by the incompetence of most of the so-called leading politicians, then the big disillusionment will set in again. The question is, will the politicians and the media who can mould such things, stop being so antagonistic about everything?

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Forgotten confidence? What utter journalistic twaddle? I don't need an Olympic Games to puff me up, thank you very much!

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    "Today, in the golden shadow of the Games,"

    Hey, the cockney games were fun and often uplifting but they do not justify your comments. A month or so from now they will but more or less forgotten.

    Life goes on and some feel good telly doesn't change life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    To the Doom Sayers regarding the London Games, we had in fact already proved we could do it. In Manchester, ten years ago we had the amazingly successful Commonwealth Games.This too was going to be a flop and prove how hopeless the English(Brits) are. Well it was a great success and for Manchester an amazing legacy, one of them being the success of Man City. We are talented, London proves it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    The Olympics made us stop worrying about how others see us and to think about how we see ourselves.

    We found so much that is worth admiring-courage, determination, creativity and a sense of togetherness.

    I`m proud of my country and I thank all those who have made this an unforgettable summer. To every volunteer, every athlete whatever the result in their event-

    Thank you all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    It is interesting to speculate quite what proportion of the population has been affected thus - though a significant numbers undoubtedly have! The influence of the line the news media decide to take is a moot point also. We seem to have ducked the bullet of our Games being associated with the expected Viral Pandemic!

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    The Soviet Union also bought sporting success for propaganda purposes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Nice article Mark but I think you'll find that we have always tried to have confidence in ourselves but kept having it knocked by the press keep telling us how rubbish we are!
    Tell us enough and we start to believe it.
    If you remember at the start of the summer we were told about how badly the organisation of the Olympics was going to go, how poorly we were to perform etc. Doomsayers be gone!

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    I notice years ago that most news stories seem negative, playing down achievements as if they are few and playing up the failures and misfortunes as if they are all-pervasive. We are told we are failures, we expect to fail and so we do. If a lack of positive outlook can affect my health and life - how much more that of a nation!

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    @Surely not, well you can carry on blowing your trumpet. There is one saying which I truly like, "everyone has a skeleton in their cupboards". It is an English saying, which is an honest saying. Possibly the only one which is honest. And notice how it begins, everyone, there are no exeptions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    As 'we' have spent nigh on a millenium fighting the infestation that devoured our land.

    As 'we' fought for the end of slavery, end of servitude, end of women being excluded.

    We have had every right to be proud.

    Sporting success is merely a welcome bonus.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    A lot of what you write is true - however, it applies primarily to London, not the UK. Or at best, England. Scotland recovered it's confidence and decided it had enough belly to rule itself and take pride in its own achievements. Let it not slip into us telling the world how great we are (we have had centuries of that guff) but turn it inwards and decide who we now are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    As a Nation we expected the Olympics to flop; the media fed us the expected stories about failure and we waited for the podiums devoid of UK athletes. We were wrong, we tasted success and I think we liked it. The lion can indeed still roar. What we need now is an Olympian government to lead us out of recession, to do what is right and do it well. I fear that we are going to be disappointed...


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