What Brexit and the Olympics really have in common

The run-up to the Olympics was an endless whinge-a-thon from the liberal middle-classes.

James Heartfield

Topics Brexit Politics UK

‘Whatever happened to the Olympic spirit?’, cry the Remoaners. Last weekend marked the seventh anniversary of the 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony. Many are wondering what has happened to the positive spirit of that summer.

Centrist dads like Hugh Bonneville and James O’Brien have contrasted the togetherness of the Olympic Opening Ceremony with what they see as the horror show of Brexit. ‘This was us’, said Bonneville. ‘I want my country back,’ said O’Brien. Apparently, the Olympics displayed a Britain that was positive, confident and outward-looking – before the dark cloud of Brexit descended.

Everyone remembers the Opening Ceremony and the summer of sport that follows. But hardly anyone remembers the run-up. Between the bid to host the Olympics, winning it and the Opening Ceremony, much of the country was locked in existential angst. Instead of looking forward to a great Games, some Londoners were very angry that they were coming at all.

Chief among the naysayers was psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, ‘The scam of scams was always the Olympics’, he wrote in the London Review of Books, four years before the Games. ‘Berlin in 1936 to Beijing in 2008. Engines of regeneration. Orgies of lachrymose nationalism. War by other means. Warrior-athletes watched, from behind dark glasses, by men in suits and uniforms.’ Even after the event, Sinclair was unmoved by ‘Danny Boyle’s manipulative, budget-stretching excesses’. He saw only ‘Mayor Johnson, working the Hyde Park mob to a crescendo of orgiastic triumphalism’.

Architecture writer Owen Hatherley thought that the building of the Olympic stadia and village were ‘an act against London – the creation of yet another security-obsessed, enclosed, gated enclave set up to mock the idea that we could become more rather than less equal’.

The Guardian kept up a steady fire of histrionic comments. ‘London Olympics pollution on course to land Britain hefty fine from the IOC’, reported John Vidal in November 2011. The Olympics would be ‘politics, pollution and plague’, wrote Dave Hill in early 2012. Mihir Bose argued that the Olympics were too commercial. Robin Tudge feared that, ‘Every movement of London’s Olympics will be monitored – including yours’. Jules Boykoff asked, ‘What is the real price of the Olympics?’. Even after the feelgood summer, Guardian sports writer Richard Williams thought that the ‘London Olympics were a fantastic waste of time and money’.

Literary and artistic London – especially its more radical fringe – were decidedly hostile to the Olympics. Self-described anti-fascist David Renton denounced the ‘neoliberal Games’ in Red Pepper magazine. When Renton demanded to know ‘who are the real winners from London 2012?’, he was not asking to see the medals table, but to uncover the role of evil profit-mongers in the Games. Social geographer Anna Minton saw the London Olympics as a ‘festival of private Britain’. She headed up the Alternative Opening Ceremony Party at Rich Mix in Bethnal Green, organised by the Counter Olympic Network, which for a while kept up an astroturf campaign against the Olympics.

Of course, once it all started, most of the country got behind it and the complaints fell away. The record successes of Team GB cheered people up. The national mood was generous and popular. Radical naysaying suddenly seemed a bit small-minded. From time to time, however, someone would still pipe up to decry the wicked triumphalism of it all. ‘The trick to one year of Olympics success?’, tweeted Ash Sarkar: ‘Centuries of subjugation, slaughter and famine!’

Although today it is Remain supporters who are contrasting the good sentiments of the Olympics with the destructiveness of Brexit, there is quite an overlap between the anti-Olympics miserablists and the Remoaners. Anti-Olympians Anna Minton, Will Self and Jolyon Maugham, for instance, are all vocal Remainers. In 2016, Maugham argued that the connection between the two was that ‘the benefits of Brexit, like those of the Olympics, will be real for the few and illusory for the many’.

But there is a deeper connection between Brexit and the Olympics: both are popular expressions of national pride, and so both sent the liberal middle classes into a fit. Sulking Remainers and Olympian miserabilists are cut from the same cloth. Their abiding prejudice is that whatever is popular is wicked.

The cheerful public mood of the summer of 2012 blew the critics away – so much so that many of them prefer to forget the crabby things they said about the Olympics back then. If we do ever leave the EU, we will undoubtedly get over the Remoaners, too.

James Heartfield is author of The Equal Opportunities Revolution, published by Repeater. (Buy this book here.)

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Brexit Politics UK


Hana Jinks

31st July 2019 at 9:12 am

The Olympics was good until it became a way for governments to rob taxpayers. Just vulgar now.

John Millson

31st July 2019 at 8:40 am

Nice attempt to link two apparently similar instances of national pride. But they won’t really be comparable.
How could a chaotic, expensive Brexit be a source of national pride? I for one will not be blaming Brussels; I will be blaming my fellow citizens. ‘You voted for this’.

Ron Elliott

30th July 2019 at 11:52 pm

To the extent that both are hugely expensive ego trips for media whore politicians and aiding only the very few while doing nothing to improve the lot of Joe Average, a brilliant observation.

Jonnie Henly

30th July 2019 at 12:30 am

“But there is a deeper connection between Brexit and the Olympics: both are popular expressions of national pride, and so both sent the liberal middle classes into a fit”

That’s hilarious irony given this site, and several others, has frequently tried to paint the Olympic fever of that summer as being nothing more than…. yep a ‘liberal middle class fit’.

It’s amazing the conclusions you can spin without any real evidence, isn’t it?

James Knight

30th July 2019 at 7:00 pm

Not as “ironic” as the complete lack of evidence to support your claim.

Jonnie Henly

30th July 2019 at 12:28 am

“there is quite an overlap between the anti-Olympics miserablists and the Remoaners”

A grand total of 3 people.

Jonnie Henly

30th July 2019 at 12:26 am

“Literary and artistic London – especially its more radical fringe – were decidedly hostile to the Olympics”

You mean the half dozen or so people you can use as anecdotal evidence to push your point.

Hana Jinks

31st July 2019 at 9:14 am

Have you been cooped up? We haven’t seen you lately.

Christopher Tyson

29th July 2019 at 10:38 pm

I was in a second hand book shop a while ago and bought an autobiography of John Harvey-Jones, I’d kind of forgotten about him. Many years ago I read his book ‘Making it happen’ which is a nice catchphrase or slogan. Jones was a larger than life character, a childhood in British India, exemplary war service, including twice being sunk on naval service, he was involved in naval intelligence and eventually became chairman of corporate giant ICI. Jones went on to be a an early exponent of reality style TV, going to struggling businesses and giving out advice on his show ‘troubleshooter’. Jones was brusque and no nonsense and quintessentially British, I think we need some of that spirit today, let’s ‘make it happen’.

L Strange

29th July 2019 at 10:34 pm

I remember the pre-Olympic miserablism well, and I agree there’s a notion that the popular is inherently wrong, even dangerous, for the British. The chatterati believe we should be constantly self-flagellating and denigrating ourselves. Any national cheer seems to cause them to almost panic.

As well as the Olympics, we’ve seen it before Jubilees and Royal weddings, we saw it before the last football World Cup in Russia. For the latter, as well as the moaning, football fans were told not to go and not to wave flags if they insisted on going and no British officials attended the matches.

Whether Boris delivers remains to be seen, but by God it was such a huge fillip to hear his optimistic and positive speeches. It really threw the defeatism of the Managed Decline-ists into sharp relief. Boris is causing apoplexy simply because he doesn’t present as the dull-souled, grey-suited, technocratic managerialist that we’re ‘supposed’ to have finger-wagging at us for our own good.

Steve Gray

29th July 2019 at 8:52 pm

The liberal middle classes do not know what’s best for Joe Public. They only know what’s best for themselves.

Hana Jinks

31st July 2019 at 9:16 am

Sleeve Gay.

That’s pretty profound by your standards.

Philip Davies

29th July 2019 at 8:25 pm

Brexit and the Olympics show exactly the same spirit. We now need a campaign with a simple message to bring a little more can do and a little more hope.

Together we can do it

Jim Lawrie

29th July 2019 at 11:45 pm

We have a ruling elite, a metropolitan elite and a large number of immigrants who have no allegiance to Britain. There is no “us” to be together

James Knight

29th July 2019 at 7:03 pm

There will always be moaning minnies. But the sulk over Brexit is of a different order, it is epic and self defeating. Does anyone think that Greens care about the automotive industry? If XR and the green party had their way, they’d probably close it down tomorrow. Or maybe it is tariffs on imported food that upsets them? Hold on a minute, only recently they were bleating at “cheap food” and suggesting importing food was bad for the planet, locally sourced food was best. They certainly don’t seem to care about people on low incomes as they are prepared to clobber them with consumption or “sin” taxes (consumption being “the sin”). And as for Brexit being disruptive, it is not where near as disruptive as zero emissions. It seems liberal opinion is now modelled on The Grinch.

It wasn’t always like this. Liberal opinion swooned over the hope-change message of Obama: “Yes We Can!”. But they now whinge at Johnson’s misplaced optimism. Maybe the new inspirational liberal message is “No We Can’t!”.

Ron Elliott

30th July 2019 at 11:56 pm

Optimism is always good. We all remember, Saddam Hussein, Like Boris de piffle, singing “Don’t worry, be happy” just before the first cruise missiles started decimating his country. And, of course, the orchestra on the Titanic played lively waltzes until the water filled their instruments

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