The arrival of the ‘Great British Summer’ has been marked by relentless propagandising and shocking displays of military hardware. But what is at stake is more than mere inconvenience - these official procedures pose a real challenge to public space, voice and identity across the UK.
This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'.
Last week, after months of cold and grey English drizzle, the season changed in London. The sun, finally breaking its way through the capital’s resilient coating of hazy smog, emerged bright and proud. Like thousands of others taking advantage of this fleeting remission, I took to wandering the streets. From Soho to the Strand I walked slowly, absorbing the alien display of straw hats, sunglasses and bare middles.
Reaching Somerset House, I stopped to admire a moment. Some children nearby were having a waterfight, splashing and screaming, their parents sipping cappuccinos from a safe distance. “It really doesn’t feel like England today!” beamed a tranquil looking woman.
The noise came unexpectedly, at first as a swelling growl. The inquisitive looked up, searching for the source of this sudden intrusion. Rotor blades perforated the sun and refracted shadows danced across the large square. Imperiously, the ominous silhouette of a high-spec military helicopter came into view, its incendiary missiles clearly visible in the bright sunshine. There was a murmur among the small crowd of café goers. Awestruck, the waterfighters stopped their war games.
Unapologetically, the helicopter continued on its course, carving with slick, mechanical agility. The whirling of steel amplified into a roar as the sound refracted and dispersed in perverted modulation from the neoclassical terraces of the Georgian edifice. Amid the cacophony two other patrol units emerged without warning, flanking the first with ceremonial arrogance. Demanding attention, they circled the building’s perimeter, darting in and out of one another as they baldly flaunted their state of the art weaponry.
The crowd outside Somerset House all watched fixatedly - some bemused, others in rapture. The dance went on as the helicopters continued the drill, locked in a deadly masquerade of gutsy test maneuvers, occasionally swooping down to rooftop level as if to unleash a lethal demonstration of their firepower. Time stood still when inexplicably, as quickly as they had appeared, the aircraft all at once formed a precise line and darted off in the direction of Stratford, leaving behind them a windswept tableau.
Several of the children danced in applause, making explosion sounds and shooting into the air, while others stood in silence. Some of the youngest were crying. One of the parents went over to the group and removed the half-empty packet of water balloons. With stoic upper lips, the other adults picked at their pastries and attempted to resume conversation with characteristic London coolness. “Not a good time to piss off the Government” I joked to a woman standing next to me. “No” she replied, “I’d wait until after the Games to do that”.
We are told these helicopters are here to ward off terrorists, but last week’s display and this woman’s offhand reaction exemplify the dark heart of this twisted logic. That the pilots of these machines, the makers of their bombs, the businesses who profit from such pornographic displays of power and domination, are their own worst enemy: antagonists to the very liberty they are so adamant to defend.
For what the small crowd outside Somerset House witnessed - like many others across London and the UK at large - was not merely the deployment of a public defence service, but the pre-show of the grand arms expo that is the Olympic security detail. And the range of wares on display is growing. At least once a day, I see a G4S van, skidding past in apparent urgency, while met police patrols across central London increasingly swan around in heavy-duty gear; batons and cuffs replaced with tasers and menacing rifles.
But these monumental displays of power serve a further covert function - to dilute more everyday forms of oppression and reinforce the encroachment of public space that we are already seeing. Pre-emptive asbos and conspicuous surveillance cameras are only the tip of the iceberg, and for those planning direct-action the threat of brutal and judicial violence is a real concern, as we saw with the Royal Wedding.
Continuing my journey back home I walked up a Regent street lavishly covered in union jacks, primed and ready for the Jubilee. A battered copy of the Evening Standard lay crumpled against the pavement. A picture of David Cameron’s face, complete with the now perfected ‘solemnly disconsolate’ expression was placed artfully alongside his pithy hope that this summer’s events will make people “forget the cuts, the unemployment and the recession".
But the expectation is, of course, that we should forget a lot more than that - the right to protest and self-determination being a good start. The message is clear. You must participate in “the mother of all parties” or simply hide away, for fear of being branded a dangerous, malicious anarchist – an enemy of civil society. This is profoundly undemocratic. We were not asked if we wanted the Olympics, we were not asked if we wanted to be policed by helicopters and fighter jets, and now, if we disagree with the grotesque proceedings, we have no effective form of representation. Perhaps the right balance of flags, fighter jets and sporting prowess will save the union yet!
Just as I was beginning to re-adjust to the lethargy of the sun, an armoured police van screamed by – loaded with stern faced troops. Deus ex machina, the helicopters returned on cue, taking a sweeping pass by the plethora of flags, which responded, in salute. Sirens and turbo engines dazzled passers by, the fantastic anathema of this summer evening. On the other side of the road from me a drunk man looked on belligerently. “Come and get me then you buggers!” he growled loudly, stumbling into a nearby alleyway, a bottle of white lightning in hand.
I, and those around me, continued walking, heads down. But the echo of the man’s remark cut through the energy of this grim rehearsal of the coming Games’ opening ceremony. The official delegates of Britain were out in force last week, basking in their colonial and magisterial might – but all the pomp and circumstance of stuffy anthems and military grandeur cannot mask the uncanny and lived reality: this doesn’t feel like England at all.