Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the London Olympics has deservedly won widespread praise. He managed the difficult trick of presenting a vision of a Britain in which the British can feel proud, without resorting to any of the tired old clichés. There was not a bowler hat or a red double-decker bus in sight, and nobody mentioned the war.
One measure of the ceremony’s success is that the only high-profile critics – apart from the Iranian state media – were Peter Hitchens, Toby Young and Tory MP Aidan Burley, who tweeted that the ceremony was “leftie multi-cultural crap”.
The churlishness of the Iranian authorities is only to be expected. What is notable is that the criticisms from Hitchens, Young and Burley had no traction with public opinion. Far from becoming a rallying point for conservatives or setting a trend, these critics have been isolated.
This tells us something interesting about Britain. Popular opinion is much more (small ‘l’) liberal than is commonly supposed. It turns out that most of us can relate to a multi-cultural vision of Britain. Most of us are no longer shocked by the Rolling Stones or the Sex Pistols – how can we be when Mick Jagger has a knighthood and Johnny Rotten advertises Country Life butter? Most of us cannot understand why the church is still getting its knickers in a twist about gay marriage. We’ve moved on, further than most politicians or the press realise.
Illiberal opinion might interpret this trend as a loss of morals. Far from it. We have no time for greedy bankers, reactionary priests or dishonest politicians. And none of these pillars of British society figured in the Olympic opening ceremony.
Instead, what the positive response to the ceremony tells us is that the British are much more at ease with themselves. It is hard to imagine many other countries having the confidence to show the world the self-effacing humour of the Queen’s James Bond skit, or include Mr Bean at all (let alone allow him to end on a fart gag).
The success of the opening ceremony also tells us that pride in Britain is no longer the preserve of jingoistic right-wingers. People on the left and centre of British politics have tended to be reticent about national pride for fear of being associated with the xenophobia and racism of the far right. But now, a national identity is emerging that is more inclusive and free of old imperialist associations, and which does not need to be expressed in terms of hostility to others.
That is not to say that the old intolerant and supremacist notions of Britain and Britishness have gone. Xenophobia, homophobia and racism still exist. The point is that such attitudes are less and less representative of British society.
The Liberal Democrats should take heart from this trend. For as long as I can remember (and I first joined the Liberal Party in 1975), Liberals have been inclined to apologise for their liberalism, too willing to pull their punches, too keen to split the difference, more concerned to mollify illiberal opinion than to enthuse and mobilise liberal opinion. (Don’t believe me? Just look, for example, at the shameful way our party has fought recent Euro elections). And this is basically why the Liberal Democrats have failed to consolidate a core vote.
The question of a core vote has been the subject of two recent pieces on Liberal Democrat Voice (here and here). In response to both of these pieces, I commented that a potential core vote already exists, among people who are younger, better educated and more cosmopolitan, as I explained in more detail here.
Social trends are moving our way; more people have what pollsters describe as ‘drawbridge down’ values. So the party should abandon its habitual cringe towards illiberal opinion and express pride in its Liberalism. Let the Tories, Labour and UKIP fight over the ‘drawbridge up’ vote; we have no business competing on that crowded territory. Our job is to rally the growing number of tolerant, educated and cosmopolitan Britons – people who have nowhere else to turn if we let them down by being too timid or defeatist to be true to our values.
After all, if the Liberal Democrats were true to their values, what’s the worst that can happen? We’ll anger Peter Hitchens, Toby Young and Aidan Burley, that’s what. Bring it on.
* Simon Titley is a member of the editorial collective of Liberator magazine.