The Olympics have in many surprising and unexpected ways been an extraordinary event. The vibrancy of the games has been amazing, from the atmosphere and the competition through to the sheer numbers of individuals from so many countries that have attended or volunteered at the events themselves. I can’t honestly say I’ve been a huge gymnastics fan all these years, but I found myself screaming at my TV when the Great Britain gymnastics team won their outstanding bronze medal. I, like so many others, was united and transfixed at the drama and intensity of the astonishing moments the games threw up.
Like others I also jumped with joy at local success stories. My own region of north-east Wales is only home to about 0.5 per cent of the UK population, yet it will see more than five per cent of Team GB’s gold medals travel back from London. Crucially, the success stories of north-east Wales are shared by the people of the north-west of England, where many of the region’s Olympic athletes and medal winners train – in Cheshire, Manchester and Merseyside. This has reinforced once more the social, sporting and cultural interaction between north Wales and the north-west.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Games is the legacy they offer. And it’s my view that the legacy of London 2012 will be as much political as sporting, for us here in Wales as anywhere else.
First, it is clear from the games (and I know it sounds a little simplistic to say it) that people’s identity simply is what it is. We sometimes talk in politics in a language that is distant and remote, somehow implying people can be made to feel more ‘Welsh’, more ‘British’ by dint of a change in policy, by the sheer force of a political argument or by way of a referendum result.
Yet watching the athletes and spectators of the games I’m left with the distinct impression people’s identity is a complex mix of allegiances that evade easy categorisation and are not up for grabs in any debate on independence or union.
It’s amazing how many people have no problems proudly shouting for Welsh athletes at the games, and yet are equally as vocal as supporters of Team GB success. Indeed, any Welsh or Scottish nationalist who watched Flint’s own Jade Jones embrace both the Welsh and GB flags in celebrating her gold medal must have been depressed at the prospect of more people refusing to choose one national identity over another.
Second, the rest of the UK is catching up with the changes happening on the periphery. The opening ceremony was perhaps the most significant event. As a celebration of our nation’s history, it was perhaps like nothing else we’ve ever seen before. Gone was the more traditional, clichéd story of English kings and queens. This was a people’s history of a people’s island, which for once mirrored the diversity and complexity of the place we all actually live in. Does this represent a newly found, or more accurately, a newly discovered, self-confidence? It remains to be seen.
The political reaction to these games, I would suggest, will be much more significant than perhaps any of us first realised. The most obvious and immediate reaction will be felt when the debate about Scottish independence resumes. The SNP will have to react to what is happening by recalibrating what exactly ‘independence’ will mean in hard political terms because it’s clear we are too conjoined, too united and have too much in common to cleanly go our separate ways. Nationalist politicians have until now offered up a single and sometimes rather inflexible identity for us to sign up to, and shied away from the opportunity to explore and reflect back the much more complex and multifaceted one that people themselves feel. After London 2012 I image citizens will find this choice much less appetising than ever before, as the games have shown that being Welsh or British, or Scottish or British, is a false dichotomy.
Equally there will have to be a reaction by those who oppose Scottish independence. These Olympics are no more a signal we can somehow return to the centralised model of politics and identity we had in the past than they are than British people are ready to break apart. The case for the union will have to be made in a different way – a different type of union, a more decentralised politics but a more united people as a result.
For us here in Wales the implications will be equally big. Wales is a proud nation, with two tongues, myriad interlocking identities and an embryonic political system that must now reflect back what its people want. Carwyn Jones has led the way with his suggestion that now is time for a constitutional convention to remake the union fit for the 21st century. I would suggest this now looks a very good place to start.
The challenge is there for us all – for unionists and nationalists and for those of us who are more confident of a new British identity today than we were before the games. We must let our politics and our political institutions be forged by the people we represent, not designed for the purpose of serving the agendas of the politicians and parties that inhabit them.
Ken Skates is Welsh assembly member for Clwyd South. He tweets @KenSkatesAM
Photo: The Department for Culture, Media and Sport
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