St Danny, saviour of the union

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By Kenneth Roy

Since I failed to watch last Friday’s opening ceremony – I must have mistakenly believed that I had something better to do – I have no right to comment on the spectacle itself. I’m prepared to acknowledge, in the absence of much published evidence to the contrary, that for the outlay of only £27.5 million it was rather good, if not actually the best thing since sliced bread or the Big Bang, whichever came first. A knighthood for its creator seems a poor reward; it may be necessary to canonise the person responsible.

However – the qualifying word is vital in this case – the reaction to the spectacle has been more remarkable than its producer could ever have hoped – or feared. St Danny imagined what Scotland on Sunday called ‘a caring, contemporary and self-deprecatory country’ – which, if a faithful representation of his vision, is not a country easily recognisable as the one which most of us inhabit. I would give him contemporary in the sense that we are living in it here and now. The other qualities claimed for the United Kingdom (according to Scotland on Sunday’s interpretation) are debatable at best.

But I didn’t see it. So I accept that, as a uniquely well-resourced piece of popular entertainment, it was all the many splendid things claimed for it; it may even be that the deeply humane country which it depicted actually exists somewhere, in ways foreign to most people’s experience. But that is as far as it should have gone – to have been seen for what it was, the work of a creative individual with a budget to die for, a tribute to the abilities of the British cultural industry, as the arts are now humiliatingly described.

Instead something unexpected has happened to St Danny’s production. It has been appropriated by the London media – every section of it, across all the usual boundaries of politics, culture, ideology and taste – and found itself coverted into an object of British triumphalism.

It is sound policy to suspect consensus, and it is hard to recall a more powerful recent consensus than the one which confirms the opening ceremony of the London Olympics as a transforming moment in the fortunes of the played-out dump which modern Britain so closely resembles. Since Friday, a bronze medal for Team GB in some obscure game played by no more than a few hundred people has been considered not only a sporting triumph fit for a page 1 splash, but a symbol of that national renewal facilitated by St Danny with a little help from the monarch. Poor Danny: where on earth does he go from here?

The consensus is certainly impressive, if you like that sort of thing. It unites the Independent and the Daily Mail; it rules out any criticism of the BBC’s comically over-the-top coverage; it reduces the critics of Olympic vainglory to the lowly status of conscientious objectors in a popular war. What does it all cost? Twelve billion? Who cares? Make it 20, why don’t you? We have the perfect storm: the media as cheer-leaders, strongly backed by the usual chorus of chest-beating politicians, fuelling an excess of patriotic sentiment. God help us, although one trusts it won’t come to that.

The immediate madness will be over in less than a fortnight and a sense of proportion will be restored, perhaps even a sense of reality, with a new political season; but the mood music may have changed. Scotland on Sunday thought the opening circus so significant that it led its front page with the suggestion that the Olympic ceremony posed a ‘threat to independence’ no less. Eddie Barnes’s intro gave it the works, for what the works were worth:

The Olympic opening ceremony’s spectacular celebration of modern Britain will drive support away from Scottish independence, pro-UK campaigners claimed last night as they declared it could prove a major turning point in the run-up to the referendum.

On closer examination, the story turned out to be Douglas Alexander, brother of the clever Wendy, having a good time at the SNP’s expense. Mr Boyle’s production had ‘captured and defined the essence of Britishness and reminded millions of us what we so cherish’; it had ‘impacted on our sense of ourselves and on politics here in Scotland’. Well, the SNP was asking for it. Its Braveheart agenda of cheap emotionalism invited a response. It has finally got one. Until last Friday St Danny was a humble film producer mainly celebrated for bringing the ghastly ‘Trainspotting’ to the screen. Suddenly he is a figure of historical importance – the man who ‘sorted the union’ as one of Mr Alexander’s supporters ludicrously put it. Perhaps that was not Mr Boyle’s intention. He may have thought that he was simply putting on a show.

When I should have been giving the Olympics my full attention, I was thinking about 1961 – the year I’ve reached in my extensive trawl through post-war Scotland. It was the year of John MacCormick’s death and of John Smith’s entry into public life as the 23-year-old Labour candidate in the East Fife by-election. The fizz behind MacCormick’s covenant campaign, which gathered two million signatures for a self-governing Scotland, had evaporated by then; the devolutionist cause was at a low ebb.

At the end of that year, Jo Grimond, the then leader of the then Liberal Party, speculated at length on the nature of Scotland’s destiny, if it had one. ‘The Scots have got to make up their minds why they think Scotland is worth keeping,’ said Grimond, ‘for what purpose they want to keep it, and if it is worth keeping they have got to realise it is because it is different’. He acknowledged the argument that the Scots should control their own affairs because they were badly treated, because they did not believe that Scotland got a fair share. ‘But it is something much subtler than that. The fundamental reason why Scotland should have self-government is that it still has something to contribute to the world as a nation’.

It would be a fine thing if the referendum campaign was dignified by a serious discussion on the merits of Jo Grimond’s case, so plainly and calmly expressed: if, in other words, the debate was informed by reason. It cannot, of course, exclude emotion. But the response to St Danny’s big night out suggests that the emotion will be expressed in the shallowest terms. The rival patriots, Scottish and British, slugging it out for the next two years at the tops of their shrill, silly voices – it’s a hideous prospect. But at least we will have Danny to blame.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review