The global economic slowdown and the institutional indiscretions it exposed took a large bite out of British self-confidence. You could see it in peoples’ eyes and hear it in their voices. Who do you turn to in difficult times when Government Ministers aren’t above cheating their expenses, when bankers lie and cheat, when some among the press hack mobile voicemails and company directors preach restraint while filling their boots?
With confidence strictly rationed, people looked forward to the arrival of the Olympic festival in London with a mixture of dread and contempt. It was costing how much, again? In the months and weeks running up to the Games, sceptics needn’t look far for the omens that would support their doubts. Security couldn’t be secured. Ticketing sites collapsed. Transportation would surely fail to transport. Residents and visitors alike would be embarrassed, inconvenienced and annoyed.
The cynics watched the opening ceremony so they could tell us so again. But the opening ceremony denied them that opportunity, and them some. The sun began to shine. Gold, silver and bronze began to shine for TeamGB too, after a slight delay. National pride grew with every hard-won medal. Even the sceptics and cynics quickly changed sides.
All of a sudden, Twitter was all-a-twitter with optimism and national pride. Mo Farah and Jennifer Ennis, even the usually glum Andy Murray, raised the roof and the mood. When we thought it couldn’t get any better, Chris Hoy, Ben Ainslie, Bradley Wiggins and many others obliged.
Now, the talk is of legacy. For some, it’s about getting sport properly back onto the school curriculum. That would be both fitting and lovely. But that alone would be to under-sell the achievement.
London 2012 has shown that Great Britain and Northern Ireland can compete on the world stage and win. Away from the arenas, the rest of the world looks at the United Kingdom differently today than it did a few short weeks ago. They too have seen something they hadn’t seen in a while: swagger has replaced introspection, while self-confidence, mislaid for a while, has been rediscovered.
Britain is no longer the island that stands somewhat aloof from the rest of Europe. It no longer stands on the ceremony of its historical past – that went the moment Queen Elizabeth II leapt from a helicopter, presumably to escape James Bond’s advances. The country has been recast as a confident, inclusive and capable modern nation.
Business, big and small, needs to capitalise on the worldwide opportunity that’s been created primarily by an army of unpaid volunteers and unknown athletes.
It’s time to exchange the rediscovered British confidence and international goodwill for exports. We need to sell the talent, the creativity and the organisational skills that wowed the world over the last two weeks. To help make this happen, maybe we need to call in a few debts.
Rather than rush off on holiday, maybe the Government could put petty politics aside and start to lead international trade missions, selling UK plc across the world.
Maybe the banks could start lending at reasonable interest rates to enable businesses to compete and do trade overseas.
And perhaps CEOs who’ve been busy negotiating inflation-busting pay packages can tap into the mounting cash reserves they oversee and start investing again to grow.
The press could help rehabilitate their own reputations by holding the others properly to account.
There’s not a moment to waste. The window has already begun to close, in preparation for shipment to Rio de Janerio.