What a game-changer the Olympics have been. When I was born, London was the largest city in the world. Now there are 30 larger – though it is still the largest in Europe and North America.
We agonised as to whether we had made the right decision to host the games in the first place, though we felt a frisson of excitement at the challenge and dared to hope that we could pull it off. We knew we were a prime and juicy target for a terrorist attack and felt it next to impossible to guarantee that there would be no chinks in our armour.
We fretted over a gridlocked city, militant train drivers going on strike, and whether we could hold our nerve at stage managing such a colossally intricate extravaganza before the focused gaze of the whole world. Most of all – amidst the gloom and despondency of the longest recession in living memory – we worried about the sheer cost of it all. Yet every anxiety has been laid to rest in magnificent style.
The world will long remember these 2012 games and Britain has been showcased as it has never been in its long, long history. It was a project of immense and overarching complexity and we could have been forgiven for our worries as to whether we were any longer up to such a challenge. But that too has been laid to rest. We may not be the titan that bestrode the world when I was born – the only one to look Hitler straight in the eye and not blink – but we remain the repository of immense skills, artistry and organisational powers. The challenges that lie before us are daunting, to say the least, but we have proved to ourselves that however big and complicated they may be, we can cope.
In the past we have acquired something of a reputation for being always able to muddle through, but that can hardly be said of the way we have handled these games. It augers well for great projects like the Thames Estuary Airport; the Bristol Channel tidal energy scheme; the high speed rail link and perhaps anything else we might wish to put our mind to like the extraction of our massive reserves of shale gas.
We have been enthused with a renewed spirit of “can do”. Far from being a nation in decline, we can start to believe that we may be a nation on the cusp of great things again. With our massive reserves of oil around the Falklands, we can become energy-independent again and make ourselves indispensable to our European partners by supplying their needs too – no bad thing in the tough negotiations which lie ahead to repatriate many of the powers we have lost.
As we are all well aware, finance rules the world and the City of London rules finance. Of all metropolises, London seems to be the one that the “movers and shakers” most rave about, buying up real estate wholesale. It is cosmopolitan; tolerant; open; a good place to do business; is perfectly placed – time wise – to transact on the same day with both east and west; boasts an unrivalled theatre-land, along with – at last – good restaurants; and as if all this were not enough, it speaks the world’s lingua franca.
Empire gave us links and goodwill that no other country can match. We have our cosy little Commonwealth Club, spread all over the planet, and we play against each other in our cosy little world of cricket. What fools we have been not to maintain the great trading links we developed over centuries with those who were always best disposed towards us. Had we done so we would not now be so exposed to events on the continent as we are today. Even now it is not too late to reverse this shortsightedness. We should be putting together trade missions with the same zeal and fervour as the missionaries of old who carried the Gospel and opened the way for trade.
Having landed ourselves with the Olympics, we knew that we would be watched as never before for our competence and flair (if there was any) and we surprised the world, not least ourselves.
As for the Paralympics, we even set a new benchmark, having pioneered it – like so much else – in the first place. Disabled people have never in all history felt better about themselves and that is wonderful. In so many respects they took our breath away. Their feats would have outperformed most able-bodied people and they showed guts beyond belief.
In my own humble way I too am bionic – like so many of them – with two knee replacements. I’d be happy – even proud – to stand alongside them, if they would have me. Maybe future organisers should think about a 100m sprint for the over 70s with knee replacements. I’d be up for it in an instant, shouting, “Rio here I come!” The training, I promise, would start at once.
Like many of you (I suspect) I am sad that I could not see all of this wonderful jamboree. But I intend to buy a DVD of the highlights. And there you go! There are some of my Christmas presents taken care of already. For once I wont have to rack my brains for something that will not disappoint.
There is no better way to get yourself out of the kind of hole we find ourselves in today than to grow your way out.
All the emphasis to date has been on the debt which hangs round our neck like an albatross. But while it was right to worry about this and to take measures to bring it under control, now we must get an engine fired up whose sole purpose is growth.
Where can this growth come from? It is easier first to identify areas where it cannot and should not come from; namely the self-indulgent areas such as we had known for the decade before the credit crunch hit us in 2008.
More than any other sector, the construction industry has taken the brunt of the recession. Once, it was commonplace to see giant cranes at work in every city centre, out of town shopping development and business park. Not anymore.
All is quiet on the Western Front, yet at the same time we have a crisis in housing. Millions of newcomers have flooded into our country and they all need accommodation. And while this moribund industry is virtually at a standstill, millions of our young people cannot get on to the housing ladder because prices are still too high.
Nothing is more likely to bring these prices down than a massive programme of building which closes the gap between supply and demand.
More housing means more carpets to be fitted; more furniture and electrical appliances to be bought; more soft furnishings; more blinds; more kitchen utensils; more visits to DIY stores – the list goes on and on. So here is one area crying out for a massive growth strategy.
With interest rates at an historic low there was never a better time to take out a mortgage, if only the product was there at an affordable price.
What about infrastructure projects to which we are already committed? Surely these could be fast-tracked. The Olympic project has shown us what can be slung up in a remarkably short time frame.
And then there’s Boris Johnson’s pet project: the Thames Estuary Airport to complement Heathrow. The estuary project would not only send a powerful signal to the world that Britain is determined to get ahead of the curve business-wise and continue to host the world’s number one airport; it would also be a faith restoring project as well as, hopefully, the world’s most exciting and, perhaps even beautiful, airport. Even the green lobby would have to have all its boxes ticked.
In our efforts to get energy prices down – a very necessary prerequisite for growth – why don’t we and the rest of the struggling West release a large part of those strategic reserves of oil we all built up to fight the Cold War in the event that it became hot? And why, for that matter, are we pussyfooting about getting up the massive reserves of oil which lie all around the Falkland Islands? At a stroke it would make us oil self-sufficient and even allow us to make the European Union independent of Russian or any other single country’s oil. Imagine what clout that would give us in Brussels!
We could set up ‘Enterprise Zones’ in depressed areas with special tax breaks. There could also be NI exemptions for new start-ups as well as firms employing fewer than 50 who take on new employees.
Yet underpinning it all should be massive, irresistible pressure on the banks to make it all possible. And funnily enough, quite apart from the massive liquidity injected into the banking sector via quantitative easing (money printing), Britain’s big and medium-sized companies are sitting on a huge stash of cash, too frightened to spend it. Rather than wasting political capital debating House of Lords reform or gay marriage, the government must develop a more coherent business strategy to inspire confidence in the business community.
With the pound so much more competitive than before the crisis and historically low interest rates provided by our recapitalised banks, we are in so much better a place than our continental rivals who have yet to bite this most difficult of bullets. Altogether we have very much going for us, if only we could be brought to see it.
Growth can also come from the world beyond Europe which occupies 60% of our export market – some of which in the developing world is not in recession at all. In this regard we have a competitive advantage since much of what we have kept of our once mighty industrial capacity is now at the cutting edge – and consequently difficult for foreigners to poach – such as Rolls Royce aeroplane engines and other high-tech earners such as our renowned computer software sector.
While we do not exercise that hard power that we once deployed around the world any longer, we still deploy plenty of soft power. We punch far above our weight everywhere.
There is a huge amount of warmth and goodwill to be found towards us in the world. You have only to look at that great gathering of the Commonwealth of Nations every four years to see that. Nowadays you even have countries which were never part of the empire applying to join the grouping.
I do not see it as fanciful that one day Uncle Sam himself will wonder why he has not re-joined his original family. Perhaps there is some truth in what George Santayana, the famous Spanish-born American philosopher, poet, and humanist, said when he opined in the nineteenth century: ‘Never since the heroic days of Greece was the world ruled by such a sweet, just, boyish master’.
We are mad not to capitalise on all this. And the wheels have been greased for us by the world choosing to speak our language before any other. We don’t even have to take an interpreter with us.