Comparing London 2012's opening ceremony with that of Beijing 2008 offers insights into the contrasting direction and outlook of China and the UK. It's not comfortable viewing for all of us Was it ever possible for London to match the magnificence of Beijing's spectacle?
David Cameron has often mentioned, particularly in the earlier years of his leadership, that he firmly believes that “Britain’s best days lay ahead.”
Assuming this is a genuine belief, as a committed realist I have often wondered what strategy he holds in his mind that will pull the UK out of terminal decline on the world stage and into a future that supersedes a past in which we presided over the greatest Empire the world has ever known.
I have thought about how I would do it, how I would even maintain Britain’s current place in the world, and any strategy that I feel would come close would require great radicalism and great aggression.
In the midst of a significant reordering of global power, the decline of once dominant nations and the rise of nations once dominated, a comparison in direction and outlook between two nations that fall into those stark contrasts, China and the United Kingdom, is fascinating.
A national spectacle of the scale of an Olympic games equally offers a rare opportunity to observe and analyse the approach of nations. The opening ceremony of an Olympic games is not an entertainment show, it is not even really about the sporting event itself; it is a national manifesto, a reflection of how a nation sees itself, and where it is going.
Beijing was a show of power, strength and dominance. It was an announcement to the world stage that China was re-emerging into the ascendancy. An unstoppable force who most citizens, and many foreigners, believed has its best days still to come.
It received an unlimited budget and unequivocally celebrated China’s history, but more importantly its growing position and relevance on the world stage. It sought not to display diversity, but uniform: those that were bigger, better, faster, stronger. A crude and unyielding approach perhaps, but one that undoubtedly continues to forcefully drive the nation forward into the world.
The British example could not have been more different. Leaving aside any concerns over matters of taste, which it would appear Aiden Burley MP has bravely taken the lead on, it was almost uniquely inward looking: championing political correctitude, social programmes, altruism and diversity, ignoring Empire, wealth, power, conflict, and gain.
Those that we held up as modern national paragons were also of great interest; Shami Chakrabarti and Doreen Lawrence contrasted strongly with Britain’s heroes of the past cited in the ceremony: Churchill and Brunel.
There were elements of the opening ceremony I enjoyed, and elements I deplored, but it was hard to see how this self reflection and inward projection onto the world stage was anything other than the acceptance of a national retirement. A concession that where we once led the world we were now happy to smile and wave as those nations with the aggression and drive consigned us to history while we focussed on morality, equality and affairs of a far more local nature.
What constitutes our “best days” is somewhat intangible, and many could claim that best is not always strongest or most powerful, but softest and most peaceful.
Softness and peace tend to come at the price of exertion and battle however, and national decline economically and in terms of power rarely leads to greater stability and peace in the long term.
Lady Thatcher’s recollection of her meeting with a Foreign Office official comes instantly to mind, in which she was told: “Our task now, is the graceful and orderly management of decline”. Her response, “No”, and the insistence thereafter that her role as Prime Minister was to reverse Britain's precipitous national decline at all costs, is often cited as the foundation of her direction and vision for Great Britain.
It cannot be denied that had this Olympic opening ceremony taken place under her office it would have been, in line with the above philosophy, very different to either, but perhaps more similar to Beijing than to London’s ceremony.
The extent to which our national direction and identity has changed in the last two decades is therefore starkly marked. Regardless of imminent celebration and fervour, to me the likelihood that Britain’s best days lie ahead sadly thusly appears equally stark.