Coming back to London during the 2012 Summer Olympics, I was struck by a great number of things. It was only one year ago that the riots across the UK had occurred and, as many have reflected, a day after London announced the success of winning the bid for the 2012 Olympics the 7/7 bombings occurred. It may not have been surprising then that a sense of nervousness pervaded.
However, the run-up to the Olympics that was filled with anguish and concern reflects a far deeper problem in society. Indeed, it was a result of the over-inflated obsession with security that has gripped the U.S. and many in Europe but particularly Britain since 9/11 that the G4S security fiasco occurred, leading to the deployment of troops. Warnings were posted in advance about everything from infectious diseases to the "spiraling costs." The riots of last summer were also a constant fear.
The looting and disorder that occurred last summer reflected the collapsing authority of the establishment. Some argued that it was some sort of fight against poverty and social problems. However, this was far more a projection on to events by commentators rather a reality.
Those that sought to compare the disruption to Britain of the '80s were even further from the truth. When The Clash released London Calling in 1979 the subject matter was unemployment, social displacement and racism. It was a time of intense social turbulence, with industrial challenges from truck drivers, rail workers and public sector employees which became known as "The Winter of Discontent." Not long after Margaret Thatcher issued a calculated warning that British people were fearful of being "swamped" by immigrants. Coventry-based ska band The Specials sung about being chased by the National Front and soon after Britain experienced inner city riots in London, Birmingham, Leeds and Liverpool. Those riots were about discrimination and racist policing and isolation and oppression. What we saw in the summer of 2011 was naughty children getting out of control and no authority seemingly able to discipline them.
Tottenham MP David Lammy has written a book Out of The Ashes: Britain After the Riots where he reflects on those that are "told that they are worth it, but can't have it" and the role of parenting within society. Many of these themes speak to the broader sense of loss of cohesion that politicians are all to aware of. Sadly, some have tried to impose an instrumentalist approach to the excellence and magnificence of the Olympic performances, of humans going that much faster, higher, stronger than ever before -- to impose and attempt to leverage various "legacies" that are socio-economic and cultural.
A humorous piece that reflected that Britain was not quite sure what to do with winning echoed the idea that others were keen to gallop towards even during London 2012 that there would be a "big hangover" where we'd have to wake up and face the enormous bill.
Yet what has been so striking, alongside the breathtaking performances of Usain Bolt, Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis, David Rushida, Michael Felps and Bradley Wiggins has been the genuine sense of popularity and enthusiasm in London and across the UK. Not only that, the huge numbers of volunteers demonstrated that people are not all "greedy and selfish" and just out for themselves, as much of the common narrative would have it today, but rather are genuinely interested in contributing and being a part of something that has some meaning, connected to something bigger than themselves.
The bureaucratic tendency of politicians with little idea of how to inspire politically with exciting ideas to try and seize on the Olympics and somehow expand this in to an ongoing "Big Society" endeavor is not the solution to significant problems that we face in terms of employment, education, poverty and society. For that we need robust debate with difficult thorny arguments about who we are and where we are currently and where we think we should go.
With that in mind, I shall be attending the upcoming Battle of Ideas which is also in London at the Barbican Center, October 20-21. With over 350 speakers and thousands of attendees, it takes the jousting, robust spirit similar to that of The Olympics, in terms of intellectual exploration, challenging discourse and enquiry - and encourages something that is altogether rarer today, in spite of all the talk of "legacies" and "social inclusion" and "The Big Society." Autonomy -- and freedom.
So, London (is indeed) calling to the faraway towns/Now war is declared, and battle come down... but not quite as The Clash would have had it, rather owing instead more to the Ancient Greeks, this time perhaps Socrates, and the idea that before we can solve any problem, we have to ask a great many difficult questions.