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High Water Mark? 2012 Was No Utopian Wonderland

10 years after the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony, Sian Norris reflects on its position in our cultural imagination

London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony. Photo: Duncan Vere Green/Alamy

High Water Mark? 2012 Was No Utopian Wonderland

10 years after the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony, Sian Norris reflects on its position in our cultural imagination

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It’s easy to forget how, before we sat glued to our screens to see Daniel Craig escort the Queen to a helicopter and Kenneth Branagh pronouncing Shakespeare, no one really expected the Olympics to be any good. That vague British embarrassment about anything remotely earnest was alive and kicking – only for our cynicism to fade in contact with an extravaganza of music and medals.

But as the cheers and the sing-a-longs died down, the Olympics Opening Ceremony began to evolve into something beyond a sporting celebration. Ten years on, it persists in occupying a curious place in liberal Britain’s imagination – becoming imbued with a nostalgia normally reserved for the more reactionary right. 

For certain starry-eyed liberals, that July night has become the “high water mark” of our nation – a time before the division and toxicity of Brexit and culture wars, a last hurrah of centrism when Britain was a sensible country united behind progress, internationalism and the NHS. Indeed, a Guardian long-read described the political tribe of centrist, liberal Remainers as “lighting up at any mention of the 2012 Olympics”. Owen Jones called out the people who “want to live in the 2012 Olympics Ceremony” as believing Britain was a “utopian wonderland at that time”.

But the reality was much more complex. While it is undoubtedly true that Britain has become increasingly divided since 2012, the opening ceremony took place in a society already riven with division and inequality. Anyone who suggests otherwise either clearly has their rose-tinted spectacles glued to their noses – or were protected by layers of privilege from the impact of poverty, racism, growing anti-migrant feeling and encroaching authoritarianism. 

2012 was anything but a utopian wonderland.

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Austerity in Power

London’s bid to host the Olympics was spearheaded by Labour – with Tony Blair still in Number 10 the day it was announced that the city’s application had been successful. A day later, the celebrations were replaced by horror and mourning, as bombs tore through the capital city on 7 July 2005. 

By the time the Olympic Flame marched into Stratford, Blair was long gone. The Coalition Government headed by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron was in power, Boris Johnson was London Mayor, Theresa May was Home Secretary, and Jeremy Hunt was heading up the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. 

Two years earlier, the Coalition Government came to power with a promise to close “the deficit” in the wake of the 2008 financial crash which Britain has yet, really, to recover from. The crash exposed the lie of neoliberalism, and the political response failed to unite a society that was struggling to find a new narrative. The wounds and ruptures caused by the crash may have been temporarily patched up as we cheered on NHS nurses dancing at the Olympics, but the scars have not healed. The Conservative response to the recession increased inequality and division, putting us on the path to Brexit and the ensuing culture wars. 

The existence of the deficit meant little to people’s everyday experiences of the economy but led to a devastating era of austerity that widened inequality, pushed more children into poverty, reduced women’s economic security, tore up the safety net of the welfare state, and riled up hatred of minorities, people on benefits, and migrant people. 

While we cheered the Queen in her diamond necklace and brooch, the Government pushed on with its austerity agenda by passing the Welfare Reform Act. The legislation that reimagined the benefits system included the hated Bedroom Tax; the benefit cap; and Universal Credit – a system accused of faciliating domestic abuse and pushing people into debt. It also led to disabled people – even with lifelong conditions – having to face more frequent testing to ensure they are entitled to the help they urgently need. 

Little wonder George Osborne was booed by the crowds attending the 2012 Paralympics. 

The impact of austerity was clearly being felt by 2012, with the number of people turning to food banks more than doubling from the previous year (128,697 in 2011-12 to 346,992 in 2012-13).

And that was just the beginning. Still to come were the cuts to child tax credits, the full Universal Credit rollout, the closures of libraries and domestic abuse refuges, the demolishing of youth services, the shut downs of Sure Starts, the cuts to local government, and the underfunding of the NHS in the run-up to a pandemic.  

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A Hostile Environment

2012 introduced a second era-defining policy: Theresa May’s hostile environment. While the Olympics put Britain at the centre of the world stage, projecting a facade of internationalism and openness to tourists and sports stars alike, a year later vans blaring the message “go home” drove around London, designed to intimidate migrant people and foster division.

The hostile environment was the term coined by May in a 2012 Telegraph interview and has come to stand for a raft of anti-immigration policies that culminated in the Nationality and Borders Act. The policies turned landlords, employers, police and even sexual assault support workers into border guards. They drained empathy away from people seeking asylum and reinforced negative attitudes towards migrant communities. 

The combination of anti-migrant policy and rhetoric from the Government and mainstream media, and the impact of austerity causing more people to feel left behind, helped to fuel the anger and division that powered the Brexit vote.

That division and anger had been on full display a year earlier, when London and other major cities experienced intense rioting. The initial riots were in response to the killing of Mark Duggan by a police officer, while also speaking to deeper frustrations with inequality and marginalisation of young people, the black community, and those living in poverty. 

Rather than lead to soul-searching by those in power, the riots provoked an authoritarian response, not least when it came to the Olympics itself. Increased surveillance and policing were a feature of the games.

Of course, there’s a reason why so many look back on 2012 and see it as a utopian wonderland. For many, these issues happened to other people. If you weren’t on benefits, then you didn’t feel the impact of the cap. If your parents didn’t have a different passport from you, those Go Home vans weren’t very visible. If you have never had a bad experience with the police, the lessons of the riots hit very differently.  

That invisibility of suffering and the gulf between those who were comfortable and those who were on the edge also played its part in Brexit. The vote opened people’s eyes to how much division there was in the country – but that division didn’t appear on 23 June 2016. It was there in 2012, just as it is in 2022. 

There is no denying that the 2012 Olympics and its opening ceremony was a fantastic event that did engender pride in the nation. But for the many people suffering under Government policies that ripped up the welfare safety net, increased authoritarianism and targeted migrant populations, 2012 was not a more perfect, united era. We were a nation divided, then as now.


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