Don't fall for the nostalgia about our Olympic past

1 Aug 2019

Seven years have passed since the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. With this anniversary there has been an outpouring of derision surrounding the current state of the country, and a longing to see it return to what many see as glory filled days of unity. Commentators such as James O’Brien have said that they want the UK of 2012 back, suggesting that during that summer of sport, many years prior to the Brexit-induced chaos, the UK was a Tolkien-esque landscape of prosperity, togetherness and geniality. But this nostalgia and sentimentality is an obtuse rewriting of history that neglects the very real deterioration of the country long before the arrival of the Brexit juggernaut.


At the same time that Olympic fever was gripping the nation, the coalition government, led by David Cameron and propped up by the Liberal Democrats, was embarking upon a crusade of austerity measures. In this misguided endeavour, with the objective of reducing public spending and lowering the deficit, the coalition government inflicted inexcusable damage upon the country, the effect of which is still being felt today.


Just a few months prior to the spectacle of the opening ceremony, which was entitled ‘Isles of Wonder’, the Welfare Reform Act was introduced. This legislation was deplorable and would increase the number of children living in poverty by 600,000 in 2019 compared with the amount in 2o12. A UN report recently condemned the Tories for adhering to a policy of austerity, which administered unnecessary suffering and misery upon the nations most vulnerable. Four million people are now trapped in deep poverty as a result of policies first introduced in 2012.


Whilst the ceremony was seen to be a tremendous success and a ‘love letter to Britain’, the policies of Cameron and Osborne were anything but. The link between budget cuts and sanctions and the rise in the use of food banks is undeniable. Whilst 2012 will be forever remembered as the year of the Olympics, it could as easily be remembered as the year of the food bank. In a shameful indictment of coalition policy, 2012 saw an explosion of food banks around the country and the number of people using them. The rise can be attributed almost exclusively to austerity measures and by 2015, over one million people in the United Kingdom had been forced to rely on charity to fulfil the basic human right to food.


Alongside child poverty and a growing reliance on food banks, 2012 saw the beginning of homelessness crisis. Thousands of athletes descended upon London to live in the purpose-built Olympic village, yet more and more people were faced with the prospect of sleeping rough. The number of homeless increased from 1,768 in 2010 to 4,751 in 2017, but charities believe the number could be double the amount recorded in official statistics.


The 2012 Olympics were held for 16 days. Austerity, on the other hand, lasted a decade. Its consequences culminated in a lost generation and the effects of cuts to public services will continue to undermine the prospects of generations to come.


Despite the calamitous nature of austerity, Brexit has replaced it as the defining issue of modern times. It has been omnipresent for the last three years, and so has the division that is has produced. It is easy to think of Brexit as the great divider, that prior to the referendum, Britain was free from disunity. The reality is that the UK had been divided long before the EU referendum, and it was perhaps this division that facilitated Brexit in the first place.


It was 2012 that saw the emergence of UKIP as a potent political force. In the local elections of that year, UKIP enjoyed its record result. It gained 13 per cent of the vote, and for a party that had performed poorly in previous elections, as well as being widely ignored by the electorate, this result was significant. UKIP, whilst never on the cusp of power,  became the political adversary of the Conservatives. They were such a nuisance for the Tories that David Cameron felt it necessary to include a pledge to hold a referendum on UK membership of the EU in his parties 2015 election manifesto. The rest is history.


Even before 2012, the SNP dominated the Scottish Parliament. Scottish voters have been increasingly dismayed by austerity and a rise in right-wing English nationalism. Team GB, made up of athletes from all over the UK, won 48 medals in 2012, making it the most successful Olympics for the team since 1908. The camaraderie and togetherness that was synonymous with Team GB, and reflected in their medal haul, was not found in the politics of the country. By 2012, cohesion between Westminster and Holyrood had fundamentally broken down and the union of the United Kingdom became increasingly fragile. The SNP first proposed a referendum on Scottish independence in 2012 and although Scotland would vote to remain as part of the UK, the result has never looked resolute. The disparity between England and Scotland was heightened further when in the 2016 EU referendum, in which Scotland voted to Remain while English voters opted for Leave.


The divisions that are a feature of the UK in 2019 existed in 2012. With Brexit, these divisions have been simply been amplified and have left the country more polarised than at any other time in living memory.  


Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing - just look at Brexit. With the country facing precarious times, there is a tendency to want for days of old. Such is the turbulence of the latter part of this decade that it can be easily forgotten just how divisive and cruel the era of the coalition government was. It is an injustice to those who suffered at the hands of the political choice of austerity to rewrite history and to suggest that the opening ceremony of the London 2012 came at a time of national eminence. 


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