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The Olympic Legacy

‘The Tories should leave this bankrupt ideology to New Labour and embrace instead an organic communitarianism that graces every level of society with merit, security, wealth and worth.’

So said the Red Tory in this article back in 2009 entitled the Rise of the Red Tories, calling for an organic communitarianism to rise from the ashes of the broken settlement bequeathed us by the political left and right. Some ridiculed him as a romantic (neo-) medievalist, others as merely providing the sweet-smelling rhetorical roses to adorn the foul-smelling austerity assault planned by the Same Old Tories. To others, however, the language appealed, with varying levels of success, to something more primal, something instinctively appealing because innately known – dusting off long neglected notions of how we kind of knew a good society to be, or how we knew it should ideally be, or how we would ideally wish it to be.

It should be said from the outset that to speak of the good society does not require a particular party allegiance: it is no possession of the political right, even if we can admit it is properly conservative, which means it also finds articulation within the best traditions of the political left. And when Red Tory’s jousting partner, Blue Labour, entered the scene, we saw precisely why: diminished were the antagonistic accounts implicit in asocial atomism and back were traditional notions of commonality in ideal, mission, identity and purpose.

Which brings us to the Olympics. Many words have been written about Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony, many of them congratulatory, and rightly so. Boyle’s opener caught the essence of this feeling, this emotional response to the vexed and vexing political questions of our times. It touched on something most basic, something felt, yet something fundamentally social, uniquely ‘us’, and incredibly affirming. Hitchens’ words on the triumphalism of the cultural revolutionaries might have weight, particularly during the latter phases of the programme, but the point was the story encompassed all and in this manner was incredibly honest, precisely by including those bits which some of us might not like quite so much – though I’d be surprised if Hitchens did not find something in the Tolkien-esque openings to stir his soul.

The allusion to literary accounts of our unique national ideal throughout the ceremony was appropriate, for this is where the Olympics proved so wholesome, so Merry England. It unapologetically celebrated the quirky and mundane, showing the decency and serenity of the England we recognise and simultaneously aspire to, as diverse groups of people stood in awe and wonder at diverse groups of people – those of all classes cheered and admired those of all classes, both what they had achieved and the sacrifices they made in achieving it, whatever it might be and however distant to our own everyday lives it might be. For most, the social background of the Olympians was incidental, part of the heroic story they had to tell but certainly not an impediment to the reception of it. The sacrifice and achievement, the commitment to the very thing in itself, be it making a horse dance, jumping into a sandpit or doing flips on a carpet – each of them, received in a reverent attitude of respect and pride by all.

In other words, each contribution was valued in itself, for what it was. The ugly class antagonism of left-wing ‘radicals’ was as absent amidst the throng of the cheering crowd as was the sneer of condescending classes higher up the social ladder. This truly was Bevan’s platform, or perhaps podium, big enough for all to stand on.

It was this spirit of commonality, of sharedness, that was the defining aspect of the Olympics. We have heard lots, in the weeks that have passed, about the legacy of the Games, which for the Lilliputians will mean political point-scoring about how many hours of PE children receive each week or whether our children receive enough competition at a young age.

Yet if the Olympic spirit everyone agrees we must seek to preserve was anything, it was the demonstration of how we as a society can once more learn to love ourselves for what we are in all our splendid difference and variety. We can look and admire the products of both Eton and the East End. And celebrate the virtue, specifically the virtues, that were and are the distinctive products of both.

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