The first time London played host to the modern Olympic Games back in 1908, the British Empire bestrode the world like a colossus. At its peak, the Empire oversaw a fifth of the world’s population. Yet for all its wealth and size, there was a sense that the Empire was morally on less strong ground. The British had run concentration camps during the Boer War (1899-1902). At home much of the population lived in desperate poverty.
By the time of the next London Olympics in 1948, Britons had more reason than before to hold their heads up high. Britain had played a vital role in vanquishing Nazism during the Second World War. What was more, the socialist Labour Government of Clement Attlee elected in 1945 was delivering on its election campaign promises of full employment, a new welfare state and a National Health Service. But the war had come at a price. The years to come would underline Britain’s post-war near economic bankruptcy. The days of the British Empire were numbered.
Where does Britain stand as the nation stands on the threshold of London 2012? The picture is undoubtedly mixed. Britain still has a royal family. The elderly Queen Elizabeth II will attend the Olympics in the year of her Diamond Jubilee just as she did as a young Princess in 1948. The Royals in Britain are still generally popular and attract plenty of tourists.
But Britain no longer has an Empire but a Commonwealth and a Commonwealth that is much smaller than the Empire, already in retreat, of 1948. Britain remains the sixth largest economy in the world but any influence it wields on the world stage comes only with the approval of the United States. The only post-war Prime Ministers to achieve widespread fame in the wider world – Churchill, Thatcher and Blair – all recognised this, even when support for the US in Iraq ultimately crippled Blair’s leadership after 2003.
Despite this, Tony Blair has good claim to being Britain’s best post-war leader after Attlee. By the 1970s, the post-war consensus which had produced the NHS and welfare state was coming under attack. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government (1979-1990) attacked both, privatised much of British industry and launched a major assault on the nation’s public services. Britain has never been quite the same since. Like many leaders, Thatcher achieved a high profile on the international stage but weakened her country at home.
As Britain’s new Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair in 1997, inherited an economy which had recovered from the high unemployment and excesses of Thatcherism. Under his watch, Britain enjoyed an unprecedented decade of sustained prosperity, falling crime levels, largely improving services and (at least until the Al Qaida attacks on London of July 2005 which by coincidence occurred one day after London’s 2012 Olympic status was announced) a respite from thirty years of terrorism.
Since then, largely thanks to the global economic meltdown, things have gone rather less well. The government of David Cameron elected in 2010 was, unusually for Britain, a coalition although one that is primarily Conservative. Unemployment had already returned. Now under Cameron, so have spending cuts and austerity. Crime seems likely to rise again. Cameron, a Tory (Conservative) from a wealthy background has consciously modelled his leadership on Blair’s. Yet his government and the results of it more seem likely to end up as a pale echo of Thatcher’s.
Still, the British love to moan and the truth is there have been huge improvements in British society, too many and numerous to mention here. Britain is less class conscious and far more interesting, pleasant and culturally diverse nation than it has been in the past. It is far more pleasant to live in Britain today than it was in either 1908 or 1948. And Britons await their third Olympic Games with enthusiasm.