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Britain's holiday from reality

A season of high spectacle in London offers only a temporary respite from the United Kingdom's economic and political troubles. But the two kinds of experience also overlap, says David Hayes.

David Hayes
29 June 2012

If any enterprising self-starter is looking for a gap in the market in London this northern-hemisphere summer, then offering therapy for "event exhaustion" might prove a lucrative sell. A city rich in attraction and spectacle even in normal times seems abundant to an extraordinary degree in mid-2012. The celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s sixty years on the throne, the Olympic games, and England’s participation in the European football championship (always a consuming national psychodrama) are but the most compelling - or perhaps just unavoidable - highlights.

Such state ceremonials and sporting tournaments would usually command near-universal public and media attention. In this exceptional season, though, they face rare competition from prominent legal and political theatrics: a formal inquiry into media ethics provoked by revelations of industrial-scale phone-hacking by British newspapers (most notoriously so far, those under the ownership of Rupert Murdoch’s News International); the eurozone’s deep crisis (crucial to Britain, even though it is not part of the single currency); and the buffeting of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat government that, two years into its five-year term, has lost several of the qualities sound administrations most need - coherence, touch, momentum and effective results.

There are, of course, clear differences between the two kinds of event. The monarch’s "diamond jubilee" and the Olympics offer themselves as inclusive national–global festivities, whereas Lord Leveson’s inquiry and the government’s troubles are infused with political partisanship. Their respective "communities of interest" also vary. Only a small proportion of the enormous crowds that lined the River Thames on 3 June to see a flotilla of 1,000 boats led by Her Majesty’s refitted pleasure-barge Spirit of Chartwell will be as interested in studying the possible impact of a "Grexit" - Greece leaving the eurozone - and the bailout of Spanish banks, or in parsing the testimony of Gordon Brown and David Cameron at the media hearings.

Yet the royal-sporting and legal-political dramas do overlap. Both involve huge amounts of money; both are surrounded by political decision-making and calculation at the highest level; and both are scrutinised with equal intensity by London’s power and media networks for signals of the public mood and the political weather. Taken together, they also reinforce the sense - shared inside and beyond the city – that London’s mix of wealth, opportunity, people and magnetism increasingly disconnects it from other parts of the United Kingdom.

Halfway through 2012, London’s self-projection carries an echo of the Woody Allen character who tells his intended beau: "I can’t keep up this level of charm - I’ll have a heart-attack!" Perhaps then it’s unsurprising that so many citizens, at least where the diamond jubilee is concerned, appear to have made the choice to tune out, turn in, take off - or (in lieu of that therapy) write furious letters to the Guardian or Independent about how their country rivals North Korea in the mass orchestration of obsequious loyalty.

[To read on in Inside Story, click here - ]

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