London 2012: A renewed sense of Britishness?

The past week has seen an unprecedented influx of Olympic gold medals for Great Britain: first, Bradley Wiggins secured a deserved victory in the cycling Time Trial. This was followed by an astonishing performance in the velodrome in which world records tumbled and seven golds were added to the tally – the Men’s Sprint, Keirin, Team Sprint, Team Pursuit, and Women’s Keirin, Omnium and Team Pursuit. Team GB’s domination in cycling has caused much head-scratching amongst other countries’ cycling federations, prompting allegations of ‘magic wheels’ that were helping British athletes spin their way to victory.

The success, however, did not stop at cycling. In athletics, Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis won golds in both the 10,000m final and Heptathlon respectively, while an effective rematch of the Wimbledon Men’s Singles final held almost exactly a month ago saw Andy Murray win a convincing victory against Roger Federer. Making a comeback from injury, Alistair Brownlee took gold in the Men’s Triathlon in front of ecstatic crowds in Hyde Park. Great Britain now sits a comfortable third in the medals table, behind the United States and China.

Widespread jubilation at Team GB’s achievements as well as the wider success in the smooth running of the Olympic Games raise broader questions about the state of patriotism in Britain today: Are we experiencing a renaissance of British patriotism? Or is this feeling of renewed national pride temporary, a passing phase in a nation otherwise filled with cynics complaining that their country is ‘broken’?

Certainly, the re-emergence of the now ubiquitous Union Flag as a symbol of the nation’s pride in its cultural identity and athletes, and the reclamation of it from its usual dark, nationalist corner, indicates the former. I am reminded of an incident which occurred a few months ago, when, standing in a shop queue, I spotted a Union Flag tattooed on a man’s calf. A shiver ran down my spine as a first impression of an ardent, far-right nationalist was formed, one who votes UKIP at the very least and regards Britain’s recent influxes of immigration and foreign labour with disdain. An instant pang of guilt, however, followed – pride in one’s country and a tattoo of its flag need not entail far-right political sentiment.

Talking over the incident with friends quickly showed that my initial reaction was not unusual; the Union Flag has been appropriated by, and indeed is now synonymous with, the British far-right. It is not unfair to postulate, I think, that a major cause of this association is the relative lack of pride Brits have in their country. Throughout the past few years, a certain negativity has been brewing, no doubt contributed to by Britain’s bleak economic prognosis. The phrase ‘Broken Britain’ has been bandied about by every national newspaper regardless of editorial stance.  A stark contrast can be drawn with the United States, where every child old enough to speak has etched into his or her memory the words to ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, and where the Stars and Stripes are a true symbol of the totality, not of a right-wing fringe.

All this is changing. London 2012 has proved that the British have pride in their cultural heritage and in their athletes. From Danny Boyle’s quintessentially British Opening Ceremony, replete with quirky elements of Britishness that left the international viewership scratching its head, to the scores of Union Flags lining the streets and deafening support for our athletes, patriotism is once again finding its way into the hearts and minds of ordinary Brits.

The renewed pride has not been without opposition. The Daily Mail  caused controversy after it published a series of articles on so-called ‘plastic Brits’ – a phrase it defines as any non-British born athlete representing Great Britain in the Games. 61 out of Britain’s 542 athletes qualify. Such criticisms are misguided, however: an athlete doesn’t choose their birthplace any more than they choose their race – both are irrelevant criterions for determining whether they should be allowed to represent their country. Multiculturalism is a key tenet of British society and national identity. Bizarrely, according to the Mail’s definition even Bradley Wiggins qualifies as a plastic Brit, being born in Belgium despite his British ancestry.

Another oft-cited problem has been the ‘Team GB’ moniker. As the team includes Northern Irish athletes, ‘Team UK’ would have been a more accurate and respectful formulation. The public relations team decided otherwise, however, and ‘Team GB’, with its more resounding intonation, prevailed.

Whatever your thoughts on ‘plastic Brits’ or Team GB, one thing is for certain: the 2012 Olympics have brought about a renewed sense of patriotism, reclaiming the Union Flag and making it cool to take pride in Britain again – for everyone, not just a self-selected few. Time will tell if it is here to stay.

Alexander Ozga


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