Three years after the vote, the U.K. remains in pieces

ON A FRIDAY EVENING IN JULY 2012, 80,000 PEOPLE gathered at the Olympic Stadium in East London to watch the opening ceremony of the 30th Olympiad. Some 27 million British people watched it on their televisions, and many more around the globe. Expectations were sky-high and tinged with skepticism. Many of us sat down to watch the ceremony in that typically British frame of mind—ironic, self-deprecating, pragmatic—which did not predispose us to be impressed.

But impressed we were. It’s very hard to articulate a resonant, complex vision of your own national identity without resorting to cliché, but the creators succeeded that night. They did it by using humor—by deploying witty and creative use of British icons such as James Bond and Mr. Bean, by digging deep into our great cultural and political heritage. The fact that audiences in other countries were bemused, apparently, by some of the more specific cultural references only confirmed the ceremony’s determination not to project the well-worn, flag-waving, red-London-bus version of Britishness that the rest of the world was used

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