London 2012: Do the Olympics herald a 'new Britain'?

During tonight's Olympic closing ceremonies, it is reported we will see the Spice Girls performing together again.

They harken back to the last buzz words for nationalism of the late 1990s and early "noughties" when "cool Britannia" was applied to everything from music to politics.

It was, as always, a media construct. It is a way of simplifying a confused and completely unrelated set of factors.

Now, we have "new Britain".

The Daily Telegraph and others have used the term, particularly after the opening ceremonies. There isn't a particular definition, but it's linked to the perception of nationalism, and more particularly, acceptable nationalism.

Great Britain's Mohamed Farah reacts after winning the gold in the men's 5000-meter final. AP

Unacceptable nationalism is perhaps most frequently referenced by Nazi Germany, and their own Olympics used for the promotion of racial superiority, amongst other things.

"Pride in nation" is a scale that ranges from the jingoistic and dangerous nationalism, to the comfort at seeing your national flag when returning from abroad.

The British press didn't approve of the flag-waving nationalism of the Vancouver Winter Olympics two years ago, considering it un-Canadian to be proud.

Brits are perfectly happy to wave the flag, but do so with the self-deprecating humour shown during Danny Boyle's opening ceremonies.

But that was two weeks ago. After such overwhelming medal success for the host nation, the flags are being waved without any hint of hesitation.

As a Canadian, I had a sense after Vancouver that something had changed, that we had a new perception of self and of nation that we had always struggled to define. But sporting events are fleeting and I'm not sure most Canadians could now offer a unified self-definition.

If nobody can identify what "new Britain" means now, they will struggle to define it weeks or months down the line.

Britain's music industry, with titans such as Adele, was finding success well before the Olympics.

Its film business regularly churns out Oscar gold and commercial success. None of that will change because of the Olympics.

Conrad Black - the fallen media mogul who, for some reason, still gets published - declared that the Olympics prove Britain is still a "serious country".

His view is emphatically looking back to the days of empire to rival the US and China.

And for some sections of the printed media, finding an acceptable form of nostalgic nationalism is an obsession. It is an identity formed entirely on a polished history of chosen moments and icons and simplistic perfection which never existed.

When you disagree with the course of a current government, you declare that the country is being driven into the ground compared to past glory.

Just look at some of the rhetoric in the US during the current presidential election for examples.

When you perceive that Great Britain is no longer "great", by virtue of the loss of empire, the rise of China in particular and the current stagnant economy, you look for something to cheer about.

And the Olympics have undoubtedly provided a source of pride - nothing wrong with that. But only if the London games really achieve their long-touted "legacy" will much change.

Britain needs greater equality in sports uptake and media coverage, substantially more physically active youth, and acceptance of sporting success regardless of racial or economic background. That sort of legacy will take decades, long after the flags have been packed away.

And even then, most of those changes relate only to sport, which can certainly make for a more successful nation, but not in isolation.

If Britain wants to use the Olympics and Paralympics to inspire creation of a "new Britain", by all means. But every Briton will have to work at it to make it a reality. It doesn't come from simply watching sport, or the Spice Girls.

Updated Date: Aug 12, 2012 13:01 PM

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