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

What is extreme?

Theresa May's proposal may be eye-catching, but it faces significant challenges.

Read full article

More on This Story


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 443.

    Given the will and confidence of enough people, the future is always there for the taking.

  • rate this

    Comment number 442.

    I like your analysis Mark. For years we have been uncomfortable about our place in the world- and now we've discovered that actually there's nothing wrong with being British.
    Steve Coogan said that the opening ceremony made irony about Britishness suddenly seem out of date. A new era is emerging... still it will take us time to let go of our cynicism

  • rate this

    Comment number 441.

    The Olympics were a success and the Paralympics both a success and a necessary instruction.

    But sadly: another day, another bandwaggon.

    How long before all those happily jumping on the success push off the people who actually made it all work in the first place?

  • Comment number 440.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 439.

    Anyone else love David Cameron's inane comment about 2012 being "like 1966"..? Only Honest Dave could equate winning an international tournament with "doing slightly better than usual". Nice to see the Tories being booed at the Games though - the public clearly aren't as stupid as Dave & Co hope and aren't being distracted by Olympic smoke and mirrors from the mess the country is in.

  • rate this

    Comment number 438. lets see our flag all over the high seas like before!

  • rate this

    Comment number 437.

    What absolute drivel this article is.

    Presumably a Big BBC attitude problem exemplified by the ludicrous way winning one tennis tournament was top news story all day, and interminably long dwelt on. Get over it sport is of absolutely no importance especially olympic sports almost no one ever bothers with before or after. Spongers excelling by professionalism over others at a hobby.

  • rate this

    Comment number 436.

    305. jd1968
    Ah I see my last comment was removed. The propaganda dept at the beeb working overtime.
    Don't flatter yourself. It was probably just a rubbish post and nobody noticed it's gone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 435.

    Bla bla bla. The Olympics were great. millions enjoyed it, so stop moaning and keep your misery to yourself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 434.

    Throwing billions of pounds at a problem and allowing the public service to pick up the slack produces impressive circus: news at 11!

    Page 2: why doing well at an event is easier when other governments with a sense of priority aren't draining money on training people to run in circles quickly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 433.

    Perhaps the more long-lasting effect will be in renewing other, equally traditional values: respect for determination, hard work and good preparation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 432.

    Hey "LLH", I was a Games Maker, and the whole thing was a Blast! People stopped me in the street to ask me what I was doing in the Games, and they were all incredibly positive, and I even got recognized when I got back to home in LA. And let's not forget how bad the "Redneck Olympics" were in Atlanta.... Born in Britain, now an American...

  • rate this

    Comment number 431.

    409. "everyone.....complementary about the games and the UK..... massive positive PR opportunity"

    The key in that was "PR". The sporting summer was good but changes nothing no matter how much PR spin. Our institutions are intellectually bankrupt and need replacing.

    When I see that I will have confidence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 430.

    We never lost our mojo as a nation, we just lost our nerve and confidence. Hopefully we'll believe in ourselves, and not the limitations we accept, or the excuses we use.

  • rate this

    Comment number 429.

    Irony of ironies! To all of you who are demonizing the media-- I remember reading the comments on one of these HYS articles that was about the upcoming summer Olympics. MANY people (the majority) were complaining about the cost, the crowds, etc. And now you're criticizing the media for being cynical?!? As an American with English roots, I love the UK-- but sometimes you people crack me up!

  • rate this

    Comment number 428.

    Just to compound your misery, according to the tories it's 'Northern Island' you live in now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 427.

    69.jesus bermudez
    And Naopleon was of average height for the time (approx 5'7") not the midget English propaganda would have us believe. At least we can seek out the truth about lots of things more easily today, which is something to feel grateful for.

  • rate this

    Comment number 426.

    Bradley Wiggins winning the tour, Murray wining the US Open, Team GB bringing back all the gold Brown sold off, England....drawing 1 - 1 with Ukraine at home? Oh dear.

  • rate this

    Comment number 425.

    "The summer may also have made us more self-confident"


    That's easy enough to say.

    It might even mean something, if anyone had the faintest idea to whom "us" refers, Mark.

  • rate this

    Comment number 424.

    What a load of twaddle. confidence in what....the ability to put your head in the sand.? The country is broke, TUC want a General Strike (what good is that supposed to do ?),we cannot defend ourselves if push goes to shove and all we can do is wave ''Gold Medals''as congratulate ouselves ...'' whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.''


Page 1 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.