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, Home editor Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

When we look, we find

Sexual abuse of children was, until relatively recently in Britain, rarely discussed in public. Now, hardly a day goes by without some new horror hitting the headlines.

Read full article

More on This Story


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    Got it in one! The British media, in an act of breathtaking hypocrisy did a 180 degree turn when it realised that "mainstream Britain" had turned out in force to support the games.

    Our national conversation is dominated by corrosively negative people, who crucially mistake cynicism for intelligence. The only sport, or indeed activity at which they would excel only involves the use of one hand!

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    We like to be modest, but our self-deprecation is easily mistaken for shame, and often used against us by Britophobes. Let's learn enthusiasm from the sports fans, cheering on the home team while still supporting the underdogs and being generous to opponents. We showed the world our real face this summer, and it's a good one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    We have gone from one extreme to the other. Prior to the games attitudes in the press were too negative, now they are ridiculously over the top positive.
    Of course we are really in between. The true attitude barometer will not be able to be gauged until 6 months from now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    One thing seems to be clear about Britain, we grumble and complain because we want things to be perfect, The games showed how everyone made a herculean effort, and it paid off.
    Even Jacques Rogges seemed to be caught off guard during his speech by the tremendous cheer given to the volunteers for their part.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    The last days of the Roman Empire
    What is to be expected from a crashing empire?
    The last days will be always be accompanied by heaving feasts, champagne and dancing on the tables.

  • Comment number 78.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    I find the nationalistic drum beating of the likes of Cameron and Johnson both unpleasant and not in keeping with the Olympic ideal

    OK take some pride in doing a decent job of putting on the games (apart from G4S) but why try and crow that its the best ever (no evidence).

    Jingoism and recalling the glory days of Empire is deeply ingrained in the physce of the out of touch old Etonian mindset

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Well at least the Olympics gave millions of people something to watch before they signed on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    The Olympics is pure propaganda. Smoke and mirrors. Media puff.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    Paul 42 Minutes ago "Remember:The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton"

    Actually, Wellington always denied this, giving no credit to Eton towards himself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    I lived in Oz for 2 years and couldn't stand how they laud themselves up for no good reason. Britain is too good at criticising itself but i would rather be realistic than childishly thoughless and ignorant. I hope after the amazing triumph of London2012 we can find a happy medium - celebrate the good, criticise the bad and work on our mistakes and learn from both.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    You know a country falls short when it screams about greatness instead of diligently working to make itself great.

    There is little effort required for a million monkeys to clap a few dozen people who trained to run fast or jump high. Human knowledge is not increased. More justice is not done. Suffering is not reduced.

    A kitten following torchlight on a wall figures out what going on more quickly

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    London Olympics is another London centric financial disaster?

    Does anyone in govt care to spill the figures and let us know how the extravaganza will be paid for & over what time scale?

    Pure London centric foreignising - another set of Millenium domes to be demolished sold off and as under-used!

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    The biggest problem in this country is the press. They put the country down at every opportunity, when in fact we are good at most things and brilliant at some.

    Stop the knocking from 'Fleet Street' and we will all feel better about this country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    @Paul, of course not the battle of Waterloo was won because the Prussian army delivered the final blow to Napoleoon, the British took the merit. Read detailed history and you will see.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    Whilst I congratulate the athletes, the Olympics was nothing more than a temporary distraction from much longer term issues.

    We are still in recession, we are still governed by snobs with no common decency, the poor/disabled are still vilified as scroungers whilst the rich continue to fiddle their taxes.

    People are still to easily too manipulated by the media to see what is going on around them!

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    I just read again this 'article'.

    It really is a bit of spin.

    Was lord Coe sitting next to Mark when he typed it?

    Seriously, in a couple of months, the whole Olympic thing will be forgotten.

    And I am as confident today, as I was in June. Trust me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    It's a shame that it has taken the Olympics for David Cameron and his like to realise that Britain is Great and to start saying so. Many of us knew this for a long time.

    Unfortunately the, first Leader of the Opposition and, then Prime Minister spent too much energy talking Britain down as "Broken Britain".

    At least now he has changed his tune.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    Should you wish to see who continually knocks the confidence of the people of this country, look no further than the doom merchants in the media, and yes, that includes the BBC. 'tis but a few short weeks since the "Media" was telling us all that the Olympics was going to be a disaster. A frank admission from the "Media" that YOU were the ones that got it completely wrong would not go amiss!

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    By "Britain rediscovered" you mean "press jumped on the bandwagon of".

    Those with necesssary priorities and enough money could enjoy the panem et circenses.

    Those with useful priorities or simply lacking funds have been quietly doing something else. And they won't waste time on "what did you think about the Olympics?" telephone q's, creating poll bias.

    Games end. Money wasted. Life goes on.


Page 19 of 23



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.