Published by Daily Mail
Historic, patriotic, intoxicating, mesmerising: “Team GB’s heroic success seems to have re-awoken in us our sense of national pride,” wrote Sir Roger Bannister, the first man ever to run a mile in under four minutes, “a realisation perhaps that, as a people, we have the ability, the drive and the determination to be great.”
Sir Roger is one of Britain’s greatest sporting legends, into which pantheon can now be added the likes of Mo Farah, Bradley Wiggins and Chris Hoy – people whose achievements are not merely exceptional, but truly and monumentally great. And that greatness is measured not only in the extent to which a triumph or victory enters the national consciousness – which is ephemeral – but also in proportion to its longevity in the league tables of history: to surpass is admirable, but to pioneer is unique and non-replicable. There is only one who can be the first.
For some Britons, it was two weeks of hysterical froth and blather; a seemingly never-ending ‘Last Night of the Proms’, fatuously dedicated to the superficial vanity of Olympian hotties and the extravagant prowess of the athletic elite. It didn’t feed the starving, house the homeless or educate the illiterate. It didn’t pay down the deficit, reduce the national debt, or increase GDP. It was a festival of self-indulgence and an orgy of flag-waving petty nationalism.
If that is your view, you’re entitled to it. And you can keep it.
The Olympic Games of London 2012 have generated more global respect than a moon-landing and inspired more national feel-good than the 1966 World Cup victory. Not that I can remember that, of course. But I’ve seen time and again those grainy black and white pictures which haunt the national psyche as a reminder that we were great – once. Two whole generations have since been inculcated with the belief that 1966 was our finest hour since the Spitfires and Hurricanes routed the Luftwaffe in the skies above London. Thereafter, we declined incrementally through the economic morass of being the ‘sick man of Europe’ to the point of tin-pot nationhood and political irrelevance.
But here it ends. To quote Boris Johnson, Mayor of London: “For the first time since the end of the Empire, it truly feels like the capital of the world.” We have now become a sporting superpower.
Who would have thought, out of the logistical difficulties and chronic prophecies of doom, that the United Kingdom could have devised and staged the most successful Olympic Games of the modern era? We were told we were ‘Broken Britain’: a despondent nation of moaning dog-owners and debt-ridden doubters spawning another generation of morbidly obese slappers and hoodies to fornicate their days away in a land where it’s always raining and the Mayor gets stuck on a zip-wire. We no longer do anything particularly well on our own, hence the never-ending existential search for meaning and identity in a post-national, post-Christian world.
It has mainly been the politicians throughout my lifetime who have consistently derided all talk of Englishness, denigrated our great history, and subsumed all sense of Britishness to the enlightened and exalted European ideal. They’d rather our laws were made in Brussels than in London; they yield to the European Parliament rather than that of Westminster; they genuflect to the sovereignty of Herman van Rompuy over that of Queen Elizabeth II; and they’d rather we stood rigidly to Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ than shed a tear to ‘God Save the Queen’.
But England, Great Britain, the United Kingdom has always been distinct and pioneering: we have been at the forefront of creation and achievement, inspiration and realisation, innovation and industry. We have given the world Magna Carta and parliamentary democracy; Shakespeare, Milton and the English language; industrial revolution and the World Wide Web. Certainly, the British Isles have had their ups and downs, tensions and disputes between them, with occasional moments of sheer exasperation and despair. But we, the peoples who inhabit these islands, have never really lost sight of who we are. We’ve just been brainwashed to believe we are what we are not and do not want to be.
The Olympic Games have not fundamentally changed us: to use Sir Roger Bannister’s verb, they have ‘re-awakened’ the national spirit; they have revived our dormant patriotic identity from the petrifying cryogenics of the EU’s ‘ever closer union’. They have reminded us that England and Scotland, together with Wales and Northern Ireland, do not combine merely to achieve world-class sporting status: they constitute a political union with a fortified foundation of Christian Monarchy, forged out of centuries of shared religion, language, literature, philosophy and culture.
No more should we heed the pessimists and ‘little Europeans’ who tell us that the UK is ‘too small’ to go it alone in an age of continental union and globalisation. Britannia may no longer rule the waves, but we are not a mere appendage somewhere off the north-western coast of Europe: we deserve better than vassal status to the foreign princes and potentates on the Continent. This England is the Mother of Parliaments: this United Kingdom remains one of the most influential of nations of the world – a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council; a leading member of the Commonwealth of Nations; and of the G7, G8, G20, NATO, the OECD, the WTO, the OSCE and the Council of Europe…
So quite why we continue voluntarily to ‘pool’ our sovereignty in the European Union is something of a mystery. If we can win Gold on the sporting field – to the extent of being ranked third in the world, beaten only by the superpowers of China and the USA – I am quite sure that such a superlative standard and gruelling work ethic of grit and determination can be applied in the management of our own national affairs.
There are doubtless those who will call this arrogance or conceit. They might even call it regressive delusion, reminding us of the evils of empire, the dangers of nationalism and the odious spirit of xenophobia. But such people will tend to be the same as those who have consistently betrayed our island history and sold our sovereignty for a mess of pottage.
To be British is not to be parochial and insular; it is to be outward-looking and global. London 2012 followed hard upon the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, when the four corners of the earth came to Britain to kiss the hand of one of history’s greatest; the incarnation of the second great Elizabethan era. This year has seen a revival of what it means to be British, and that resurrection has been almost religious in its fervour. Perhaps not since the sacred anointing in the Coronation of 1953 have so many union flags and miles upon miles of red, white and blue bunting been so proudly displayed and contagiously spread the length and breadth of the Kingdom.
After the largest medal haul in more than a century – with almost as many Gold Medals as the rest of the EU combined – the Prime Minister boasted that we have ‘shown the world what we are made of’. If we do not need a uniform and inflexible EU ‘Common Sporting Policy’ to achieve this, what need a common fisheries policy, agriculture policy, foreign and security policy, energy policy, justice policy, social chapter, humanitarian aid, airspace, army, citizenship, passport…
We have reminded ourselves of the deep bonds of unity we share: through the love of sport we have rekindled the love of country, a patriotism that will blaze longer and brighter than the Olympic flame. The Prime Minister proclaimed: “This is not a country whose time has been but a country whose time has come… We in this country are going to make sure that these are not just Games that made history but the Games that helped to shape our future.”
If he means it, he will move swiftly to restore our sovereignty. We all know that an In/Out referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU is inevitable, because the natives are restless and patriotism is vacuous without a country to be proud of. And all the gold medals in the greatest and most thrilling fortnight in British sporting history are as nothing if we are teleologically predestined some day to swim, cycle, run and jump under the 12-starred banner of a country called Europe.