Thursday, 9 August 2012

British National Pride

As I write, Team GB currently sits third in the medals table and, having passed our total haul from Beijing 2008, have our best tally in over 100 years.

All this success has produced a rather dramatic reaction in the British people that to some minds borders on being distinctly un-British. People publicly stating their national pride? Even comedians not mocking the Olympics for being rubbish? Winning stuff by being much better than anyone else? Mind you, winning anything in general is fairly un-British. We have always been a nation of plucky losers, supported for the effort, but not the success, with a handful of notable exceptions (Chris Boardman, Steve Redgrave, Ben Ainslie et al.). This got me wondering, has the spirit of the British people really changed that much? Are we about to become a nation of card-carrying, flag-allegiance-swearing jingoists?
Royal Mail stamp to celebrate Chris Hoy's Cycling Track Men's Keirin
Who didn't get a bit emotional watching Chris Hoy's power and refusal to be deprived of his sixth gold? He epitomises the new sense of Britain as winners, enjoy your special postage stamp and gold post box. Source: Daily Mail.
Britain has a reputation for being self-deprecating. The American migrant comedian Reginald D Hunter attributes it to the age of the country giving our humour a degree of 'maturity' that more recent innovations like America don't have yet. The Americans, he says, make fun of other people, the British make fun of themselves.
I think a lot of this comes on the back of the British Empire. Once upon a time we were a proud nation that owned the world, these days we realise that colonialism wasn't all sweetness and light and too much flag-waving is discouraged as the top of a slippery slope that leads to European domination and Nazi Germany Britain (the anagram you get from the title of this post and the reaction it produces is a prime illustration). There's also a sense that we aren't a nation overflowing with nationalism because, if we're honest, we can't, in all honestly, be that blindly proud of our country. We just aren't as great or impressive as we used to be, there are too many things wrong with Britain, too many things that are just a bit rubbish, too many things that other countries do much better than us these days. Like empires. And football.

In fact, I think football gives us an insight into where this sudden Olympian burst of national fervour has come from. To some extent it's always been there. You can see it in the way we flock out to watch the Jubilee celebrations, or the Royal Wedding, and we still flock out to support the English national team despite our only tournament victory coming in 1966. British people haven't totally given up on Britain - we wouldn't mind a reason to be proud of our country. We just need to have something that we can actually be proud of.
Jessica Ennis celebrates winning the heptathlon
We're even getting customised flags for our winners! That's confidence for you. Ennis had a lot of pressure as face of the games, but surpassed herself to win by a country mile. Source: Daily Mail.
And so to the Olympics. The opening ceremony was a roaring success, Twitter and Facebook exploded with proud (and surprised) Brits praising Danny Boyle's work. The Daily Mail was pilloried for criticising its inclusion of the NHS and what they considered an unrealistic protrayal of a politically-correct black father-white mother family (cue family photos of Olympics poster girl Jessica Ennis...). People were proud of the slightly nuts, very British presentation of British culture. And it was funny. Humour, in an opening ceremony, I know! And, honestly, I think we were also surprised that it wasn't embarrassingly rubbish, which only added to the pleasure (something that could be said of the whole Olympics so far, actually).

Then, to crown it all, we've started winning things. And not just scraping through either. Winning by noticeable distances, dominating the cycling and rowing. Winning because we're established as the best, not just as a one-off. British competitors have largely surpassed themselves, winning medals that haven't been won before, or that they weren't expected to win, or at least achieving personal bests. It's all come as rather a shock, and the whole country has been taken up with a nation-supporting enthusiasm that surpasses both the royal wedding and the Jubilee. The crowds have been deafening, even on TV. I knew people would get more excited by the Olympics once it started, but not quite this much. Total bores like Neil Morrissey have been shouted down, Britain hasn't been so united in quite some time. Andy Murray beat Roger Federer in straight sets at Wimbledon, for crying out loud.
Andy Murray Olympic gold
Even Andy Murray is officially British now. It wasn't just thrashing Roger Federer at Wimbledon or his brilliant tennis - he really wanted to win. Source: The Sun.
Sure, this national fervour won't last, although this new determination to win at the Olympics is starting to look lasting. But we will never again be the kind of country that swears allegiance to its flag, or that straight-facedly recites poems about British and Japanese opression of Singapore and our predecessors' noble struggle to throw off injustice. But then again, I think that's a good thing. It's good to have a healthy perspective on your country. But it's also healthy now and again to have something that you can really celebrate.

Today, Britain is justifiably proud.