“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford” (Samuel Johnson, quoted (September 20, 1777) in The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791) by James Boswell)
Johnson’s comment has never appeared so apposite – the City of London has co-ordinated a mesmerising festival of sport. From the consuming enthusiasm of the native Londoner, to the charming bombast of its’ mayor, and the elegant architecture of the Olympic Park, it has demonstrated its’ innate self-confidence and utter competence to the wider world.
The central cultural narrative appears to be that the Games represent a turning-point for British society – we have been told that they have acted as a “mirror” to society, reflecting the evolution of our nationhood into one that encompasses concepts such as tolerance and diversity. The success of our athletes has been heralded as evidence, simultaneously, for the virtue of unadulterated competition and the benefits of state funding. Similarly, athletes such as Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis have been advertised as the harbingers for the advantages of immigration. And, throughout the Games, a sense of uniformity emerged in the public psyche – a sense that, for one fortnight, we were united via sporting endeavour.
Indeed, it is difficult, almost inconceivable, to believe that, one year ago, the same city was – quite literally – ablaze, and gripped in the turmoil of riot.
The truth is – both the Games and the Riots are both accurate representations of modern London. There are, essentially, two London’s – on the one hand, the city accommodates an army of professionals and, on the other, a mass of outsiders who are thoroughly disconnected from the social and cultural zeitgeist. Because London has been – informally – carved into distinct zones, these groups rarely interact, notwithstanding the fact that they co-habit this dense city. Take, by way of example, the fact that Brixton was the recipient of substantial instability last summer, while – one mile away – the well-heeled inhabitants in Clapham High Street were left untouched.
It certainly seems unlikely that those in the dissident class were impressed or invigorated by the Games. The deeply-ingrained social problems that led to the Riots – generational employment and welfarism, the absence of parental or personal responsibility, and the erosion of community ties – will not have been reversed by a fortnight of sport, however well-executed it was. In this way, the first conclusion to draw from the Games is that they did not illuminate a modern, inclusive, conception of British-ness. They certainly did act as an extremely public forum for the appreciation of diversity, but it would be misleading and naive to assume that all of British society was either affected by the Games or – indeed – subscribe to this brand of nationhood. For instance, certain sections of the political community – most notably, of course, Aidan Burley MP – explicitly criticised Danny Boyle’s focus on multiculturalism during the Opening Ceremony, while it is not unreasonable to assume that vast sections of society displayed utter ambivalence towards the entire affair. This is not a pessimistic assessment, but a genuine observation of the divided nature of British society – we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we were to assume that London 2012 had papered over the fault-lines that pierce through Britain.
The second conclusion to draw is that the British performance at the Games only represents a blueprint for sporting achievement. Many in the media have argued that the methods which led to the enhancement of British athletic prowess – most notably, David Brailsford and the Great Britain cycling team – can, and should, be applied to other areas in society, such as the economy. Equally, our improved athletic output has been employed by those who advocate the merits of sustained and substantial state investment into the economy. Of course, Brailsford’s theory of the “aggregation of marginal gains” – the idea that “small improvements in a number of different aspects of what we do can have a huge impact to the overall performance of the team” – is undoubtedly cogent. Striving for improvements on a micro-level can have a substantial, positive, effect on a macro-level. Similarly, there is no doubt that the substantial finance that was devoted towards the training of our athletes created an environment in which they were able to achieve levels of high performance.
The difference, however, between elevating the fortunes of a struggling cycling team and reviving a spluttering economy is vast. Firstly, Mr. Brailsford’s mandate was a simple one – to construct an environment in which athletes could cycle as fast as possible. The fact that this is a single objective not only focusses the mind and sharpens resolve, but allows for a particularly effective method of evaluating progress – if your athletes are not cycling faster, you must make improvements. In contrast, however, an economy is rich, layered and textured. There are both multiple indicators of success and, because of the political ripples that accompany economic policy, various bars to real innovation.
In addition, it would be overly-simplistic to assume that, because large sums of money was devoted to the development of athletes, and, in reality, those athletes delivered an improved performance, that ample investment into other areas of life would yield corresponding results. Of course, this analysis is vulnerable to outcome bias – not only are there are variety of possible explanations for improved athletic performance that have little to do with investment, but it also fails to consider whether that finance could have been used more efficiently. More importantly, the nature in which the finance reserved for British sport has been distributed would have extremely pernicious result on our economy. Essentially, the hunt for gold medals – of any kind – incentivised our decision-makers to focus on specialised sports that can be disproportionately influenced by elite coaching and leading technology. This ruthless, market-driven, system of allocation has ushered Great Britain into an era of medal-winning prosperity, but has had little impact on the sports not deemed to be a priority. Imprinting such a model onto our broader economy would have wholly adverse ethical and political consequences.
However, the conclusions we should draw from London 2012 are not wholly negative – throughout the Games, substantial sections of the British public embraced the volunteer spirit, willingly donating their time to contribute to the organisation of the event. These individuals were not merely important from an organisational perspective, but – as anyone who visited any of the venues will understand – enriched the emotional aspect of the Games, approaching their roles with professionalism, warmth and earnestness. In the process, they reflected the value of community and – unwittingly, of course – conformed to the Prime Minister’s ephemeral “Big Society” concept.
The “Big Society” was, and is, a fantastic idea that was neither properly developed, nor properly communicated. At its core, it seeks to repudiate the atomistic vision of society that encapsulated the 1980s, and extols the values of active civil engagement. An indirect descendant from Robert Putnam’s seminal research into the decline of social organisations in America, it means that society is stronger, more harmonic, and more cohesive, when individuals collaborate. When we do engage in social organisations (Putnam’s research focussed on bowling leagues), our social capital is augmented, promoting interaction among individuals and a heightened sense of civil responsibility. Economic and non-economic benefits alike are, in this way, lubricated by the development – or, rather, re-development – of collectives and cooperatives.
The volunteers who generously conferred their time did not deliberately grease the wheels of the Big Society; nor do they demonstrate that Mr. Cameron’s vision has been smoothly implemented – neither proposition would be correct. What they do show is that an appetite for collaboration exists; that the British people are still interested in civil engagement. This is to be positively welcomed.