Olympics: Ceremony an ode to UK decline

Actors perform in a sequence meant to represent Britain's National Health Service during the 1950s at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics. (Jae C Hong, AP)

Actors perform in a sequence meant to represent Britain's National Health Service during the 1950s at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics. (Jae C Hong, AP)

You may have thought it was just a brilliant and slightly bonkers portrait of Britain's history, but was it actually about a country coming to terms with its own decline?

Like you, I spent last Friday night in front of the telly. Like you, I did not quite believe it was the Queen, until it really was the Queen. And like you (probably), I am not that bothered about athletics, but still found myself on the sofa at just before midnight.

But where many saw "a night of wonder" (The Guardian's judgment) and a select few spied "leftie multicultural crap", I spotted something else in Danny Boyle's opening ceremony: a country adjusting to relative economic decline.

What does a three-hour show featuring Dizzee Rascal have to do with dismal statistics? Let me explain. Last week brought the news that Britain's gross domestic product shrank a calamitous 0.7% in the second quarter. The temptation after such reports is to ask questions with a relatively short shelf life: Are the figures right? Will there be an Olympics boost? Will George Osborne keep his job as chancellor?

Take a step back, however, and the view gets so much worse. In the years since the height of the banking crisis, Britain's recovery has been among the least convincing in the rich world. But even that understates just how badly we are doing on some measures. Do as the World Bank does, for instance, and tot up each country's annual income in dollars. Then copy John Ross, a visiting professor at Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, and calculate how each nation has done since 2007.

Over the past five years, he finds, the United Kingdom has been the third-worst economy in the world, just behind Iceland and Ireland. Until the end of 2011, Britain's GDP has been slashed by nearly 14%. Ross dubs the UK "the incredible shrinking economy".

For most of the past decade and especially since the credit crunch, it has been commonplace to talk of power shifting from West to East. And most of the time this is depicted as a smooth process: the big developing countries get richer and so displace the smaller Western nations from the world rankings and no one gets any poorer, even as they swap places. True enough, but what such talk misses is how suddenly such shifts come about and the loss of status that follows.

During the boom, Britain could kid itself that it was, if not a power, at least a power broker. Blair had an economic model he could hold aloft at international summits, one built around finance, creative industries and lots of investment in education. And Brown could claim to have beaten boom and bust. Much of this is now revealed to be so much delusion. Britain's new model is obviously broken, its world-beating financial centre will spend the next few years in supplication for repeated fraud and its army of graduates will struggle to find a job.

You might find all the above too gloomy. The thing is, even the optimists are not that much sunnier. John Hawksworth, chief economist at PwC, forecasts that by 2050 Britain will no longer be one of the world's seven largest economies. On some measures, it will have been overtaken by both Mexico and Indonesia and will be struggling to hold a place in the top 10. It will flourish in a few niches, he thinks: finance, top-end manufacturing and design ... and that is about it.

Economic decline is not a new lesson for Britain to learn. In the new book he has co-written on Britain's relative economic decline, Going South, my Guardian colleague Larry Elliott uses the Olympics as a gauge of just how the UK has come down in the world. When Britain first staged the Olympics in 1908, it was the world's superpower; by 1948 it was merely the least bombed-out economy in war-torn Europe. This time, however, the UK is among the most badly capsized economies in northern Europe, desperately hoping to drum up some business through what Boris Johnson tastefully describes as a "schmoozeathon".

Slick romp
This brings me back to last Friday night and "the Boyle Show". As the American academic Jed Esty argues, periods of economic atrophy often lead to a more introspective, backward-looking culture. In his book A Shrinking Island, Esty studies how this played out in Britain as it lost its empire between the 1930s and the 1960s. Even 1950s science fiction, he argues, was far more nostalgic in Britain than its more optimistic American counterparts.

With its three-hour depiction of our island story, the Olympic ceremony fits Esty's argument perfectly.

This was a very slick romp: Blake, Brunel, the industrial revolution. But all of it was nostalgic, a la recherche du social democracy perdu. The suffragettes. The national health service nurses in their 1950s uniforms. Even the nods to the modern world with the (well-deserved) appearance of Tim Berners-Lee were sepia-tinged: look, world, we invented the web! Even if it is the Americans who now run the internet industry.

Esty highlights other cultural manifestations of Britain hunkering down: the Booker success of Hilary Mantel's historical novel Wolf Hall, the massive audiences for Downton Abbey. He could have added Martin Amis's Lionel Asbo and John Lanchester's Capital: attempts to define who we are. In the long recessionary culture Britain is about to enter, I bet there will be many more. – © Guardian News & Media 2012



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