I watched the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games on Friday 20 miles from Stratford—the other Stratford, Warwickshire. I was visiting friends in Coventry which has, incidentally, fully embraced its role as an Olympic football venue. We gathered around the TV, marvelling at Danny Boyle’s vision: the NHS, CND and multi cultural Britain for a moment gave us a glimpse of a Games away from the stifling effect of corporate sponsors, eye watering budgets and failing private security firms. The Daily Mail and the bonkers MP were correct, this was not their Little England.
Sitting in the heart of England, I felt I understood what has been achieved by working together. Boyle chose Brunel and steel making to represent the industrial revolution, but it could have been Watt and ship building; the coup de théâtre with Tim Berners-Lee is a reminder that Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was the first step in that digital revolution. The nurses, clinicians and other NHS workers celebrated our world class health provision, which was built on the science which gave us disease control, penicillin and anaesthetics.
This was a vision of the Union which no politician, economist, political scientist nor constitutional lawyer has yet articulated. This was not an event which bowed to ‘tick box’ approach to the UK nations, their cultures and achievements. Granted we did have the children’s choirs and a sweet rendition of Flower of Scotland from Stirling Castle (where else?), but no hackneyed vision of pipes and tartan, just the achingly beautiful voice of Emili Sandé singing the hymn adopted as the English FA anthem while the dancer/choreographer, Akram Kahn performed his moving tribute. What everyone agrees is that the artists delivered on Friday. They delivered not only a view of the London Olympics to the world but reflected ourselves to ourselves.
After all this I was not surprised on my return to read headlines in the Scottish media about the Opening Ceremony providing a back drop to the debate on independence. Some of the headlines were at best wishful thinking and at worst overblown jingoistic nonsense (Games are new Battle of Britain, screamed Scotland on Sunday). A bit premature since we have two years to go until the referendum. What the London 2012 event confirms, however, is the role which artists will have in exploring the issues as we approach the day of making the biggest decision of our lives as citizens and voters. Of course nothing will ever again have a budget of over £20 million and guaranteed global TV audience in billions, but it will be the artists who can take us on the journey of imagining.
After the launch of the Yes campaign, David Greig, wrote, Leaving the Castle, a wonderful blog about what it might feel like the day after Scotland’s independence. At that point I knew that we can hope for two years of sparky creative thinking and making from our artists which will reflect, challenge and ultimately help us each make up our own minds on our country’s future.