I helped produce the London Olympics opening ceremony: the spirit of 2012 is no antidote to Brexit Britain

The Olympic stadium, Stratford, London. Image: Getty.

A misplaced nostalgia continues to grow around the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony. Chuka Umunna’s recent policy document for his think-tank The Progressive Centre used Danny Boyle’s production to define “progressive.”  Yvette Cooper almost cried contrasting the idyllic evening to our current predicament. Eddie Marsan pre-empted Chuka and suggested the ceremony could form the basis of a party political broadcast for a new centrist party, while JK Rowling set an entire novel in the halcyon days of the 2012 Olympics.

Our 2012 nostalgia harks back to a time of momentary unity, before we voted to leave the EU, before our government was in complete collapse and before the opposition proposed ripping up the economic status quo.

I worked on the production team for the ceremony. I look back on that night with sincere affection and remember the period with clarity. Until the night of the opening ceremony, the public mood towards the Olympics was one of grievance and pessimism.

On the following morning the entire country did a double-take; I sat on a bus strewn with double-page spreads of the molten Olympic Rings while everyone around me chatted feverishly with pride about the portrait we had created of Great Britain. So it is understandable to transport this fleeting pride beyond those four hours of entertainment. But it is delusional to confuse that moment in time with a mode of politics that is somehow superior to the present day.

Olympic ceremonies are made with the unambiguous agenda of selling the host nation’s virtues to the rest of the world. To employ one as a reference point for reality is irrational. Any project that has the express aim of celebrating modern Britain, availed of an £81m budget, an Oscar-winning director and a cast of 10,000 volunteers would be largely successful, regardless of the political moment in which it was made.

The ceremony was the culmination of six years of planning and the work of more than 2,000 people. My small role saw me organising the movements of the thousands of cast and crew, a speed boat, a helicopter and the Red Arrows. I attended meetings with the Civil Aviation Authority, the Metropolitan Police and COBR. The sheer level of ambition was intoxicating, its coordination staggering; to be a part of it was exhilarating and, mostly, joyful.


This was a heavily choreographed and purposefully innocuous performance – which was precisely the reason for its broad appeal. Each iteration of the government-funded production was vetted by the International Olympic Committee. Non-profit in law, if not in spirit, the IOC trades in the abstract notion of achievement. The end result was a colossal theatre show that left scant room for critical viewpoints.

Beneath the ceremony lay the success of propaganda. While it celebrated many of Great Britain’s most noble traits and achievements; the industrial revolution, our literary history, the Women’s Suffrage movement, our multiculturalism, our working class and our first broadcast lesbian kiss, it omitted less virtuous ones, including Britain’s history of colonialism. Incredibly, the ceremony concealed the politics of the time.

Umunna invites us to remember how we celebrated the foundation of the NHS, 600 working nurses amongst the cast, but it was well known among the production team that David Cameron had explicitly requested this segment be cut from the show. The producers were brave enough to override their prime minister's opinion, unlike my next experience helping produce the Olympics ceremony in Russia.

Nevertheless, Cameron’s attempt to suppress praise of the NHS shows that off-stage the government, far from celebrating the health service, planned to run it into the ground to justify its subsequent privatisation. This political agenda existed as much then as it does now.

The Military were brought in to provide security for the event, including the months of rehearsals, after G4S failed to meet their contractual obligations. Since then, the same government has continued awarding G4S controversy-ridden contracts amounting to millions of pounds.

As Yvette Cooper points out, the show’s opening tableau, charting the dramatic transformation from a feudal to an industrial nation, gave a heartfelt moment of focus to the Windrush generation. Beyond the walls of the stadium, however, the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, had announced her hostile environment policy two months before the ceremony.

Crucially, in 2012 the total sum £9.3bn spent on the Olympic Games indicated that austerity, which then chancellor George Osborne was already selling as a necessity, was indeed ideologically founded. Austerity catalysed the economic inequalities that have fuelled social divides in Brexit Britain.

We should be in no doubt that the policies which led us to Brexit were already in place as the world smiled at the Queen jumping out of a helicopter. The political terrain established in 2012 led us directly to the economic inequalities currently dividing present-day Britain. Nobody – not even JK Rowling – should look back at the year of the Olympics with an uncritical eye. 

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.