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Binita Mehta: The Olympic summer of 2012 has reignited our pride in being British

Binita MehtaBinita Mehta works at the think-tank British Future and is chair of Hertfordshire Conservative Future.

I’ve always had a bit of a thing about Union Jacks. On arriving at Warwick University three years ago, I was a bit shocked when my new Union Jack laptop bag was ridiculed for being “a bit BNP”. I’ve always been proud to be British, maybe I got it from my dad who was given refuge in Britain when the Ugandan Asians were kicked out by Idi Amin. So getting accused of being "a bit BNP" sounded like the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard.

If I were going to university this year, I would not get the same reaction. The summer of 2012 has changed that. There’s a new sense of patriotism around. And it feels different, it feels modern and 2012-ish, and it feels like we all get it.

Just ahead of the summer, my Conservative Future friends were questioning the value of the Olympics to Britain. Not any more. Now we are having discussions about how we can see a legacy for volunteering, and how we get that same kind of community spirit working again. They also feel the way Boris embodied the optimism of 2012 has been a great boost for us.

We have seen a shift in attitudes to the flag and how some people react to it, and young people I know are feeling it strongly. Suddenly, people started wearing Union Jack painted nails and phone covers (not just me). We understood how it felt to be surrounded by people sporting red, white and blue in the streets, something that I don’t remember in my lifetime.

The launch of the Olympics and support for Team GB has redefined our Britishness and seen nationalistic pride go through the roof. The opening ceremony reminded us what was best about the history, culture and achievements of our great country. It stood for lots of things my generation think are great, and that the Conservative Party embodies, so we were surprised to find some older, slightly grumpier Conservative commentators suggesting that Danny Boyle’s celebration was somehow a left-wing vision. But others like Boris really got it. It stood for things we really believe in.

For the first time in my lifetime, I saw people of all types proud of and secure with our national identity. This significant year of the Diamond Jubilee and London 2012 has led to a much wider range of agnostic Brits becoming fully fledged flag-fliers. And the Northern Irish, Welsh, Scots and English all had an opportunity to celebrate the successes of Team GB together.

We’ve also learnt that the British people like to feel optimistic. They felt happy to take part in an event where we excelled, both in the creation of London 2012 park at Stratford and in sports competitions. They embraced people having fun too, from the Mayor of London swinging from a zipwire to Mexican waves in the stadium. We felt good about the world watching and being impressed. All across the globe they marvelled at what Britain had done.

Even now, in late-September, a few weeks after the official close of London 2012, it is not uncommon to see people bearing a Union Jack-branded design going about their business, or a Games Maker still wearing their uniform. Speaking to people at the parade for a British Future video about legacy, we found that the British people wanted more than just a feel-good moment; they wanted a long lasting legacy. “Keep the spirit alive” and “Inspire a nation” are not just slogans, but what people told us they wanted and believed. Not everyone knew how the legacy would happen, but they really felt it was needed.

I feel proud that Brits around the country appear to have engaged with the Union Jack and enthusiastically flew the flag in such a significant year for our country. What we have seen for the first time is a progressive, new patriotism, which feels more comfortable for people from a variety of different backgrounds. Patriotism is now linked with national pride and identity, rather than being hijacked by fanatics. The world sees us differently too. Pride in one’s country now feels modern, in a way that represents who we are in 2012, instead of just being about nostalgia.

Conservatives need to understand the all-encompassing spirit of 2012, and show we can embrace this feeling and do more to capture those who feel newly included within our national identity. Students starting university at Warwick or anywhere this month won’t receive the same hostile reaction to Union Jacks as I did three years ago. The summer of 2012 has seen us welcome this new patriotism, making us more confident to be around our Union Jack and even prouder to be British. We want that to last.


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