As the global village links us together the urge for an identity that roots us more locally (by country, by region or by affiliation with other like-minded people) seems to grow ever stronger. In the UK we have a bewildering range of different identities created by our complex history. An event like the torch relay is a great opportunity to reflect and celebrate those identities. In some ways though, the corporate behemoth that seems to be the modern Olympics doesn’t appear to be able to avoid clashing with rather than celebrating that complexity, and as someone who defines himself as Cornish but now lives in Scotland, I’ve seen that reflected in the first days of the torch relay itself.

We have the Saltire excluded from the Scottish national stadium, Hampden Park, and on the first day of the torch relay the Cornish flag snatched from a torch bearer in my home town of Saltash just before he ran out onto the Tamar Bridge to hand the flame over on the Cornwall/Devon border. Interestingly the torch bearer in question has since stated that it was apparently the presence of lettering on the flag, not the flag itself, that was the problem. Locog’s official line was they they wish to provide “a uniform experience” for all. Now there’s an interesting concept. An event like the torch relay that by its very nature celebrates the diversity of the towns, regions and nations of the UK has to be ‘a uniform experience’. Does this mean that those towns that didn’t have a Royal riding a horse as part of their relay experience should complain that some experiences are more uniform than others?

There’s also the mysterious disappearance of the Cornish language from the sign over the door of the main building at Land’s End, where the torch began its journey.  The Cornish was apparently removed as part of a refurbishment and is still included as one of the many languages shown on the official welcome signs but no longer in big bold letters over the door. The implication seems to be that visitors would somehow be put off by such a prominent display of the Cornish language. Of course it may be just a coincidence that this change happened just before the torch relay but it seems to support the ‘uniform experience’ aim of Locog.

I’m less interested in the controversial aspects of this than in the fact that the torch relay has highlighted issues of Cornish nationality that don’t usually impinge on people’s consciousness outside Cornwall. Cornwall is the Celtic area that tends to get the least publicity because of its size and its official status as an English county rather than a home nation like Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But many Cornish people are brought up to understand the unique history of their homeland and to take pride in its difference, its culture and its language. Many will admit to being British yes, but Cornish rather than English. The torch relay seems an obvious opportunity to celebrate that. That said, it’s clear from the coverage that the day attracted a huge amount of attention and enthusiasm from Cornish people and these small incidents didn’t impinge on their enjoyment in any way.

The relay also reignited discussion of other issues, such as the need for a proper stadium for Cornwall,  the campaign for which is ongoing. The relay and discussion around it on social media channels seemed to give a real boost to discussion of the stadium campaign as well. This is another very much unofficial way in which the relay can have local relevance.

So we have the torch relay as a catalyst for discussion of identity, with the helpful intervention of Locog to highlight the relationship between ‘uniform experience’ and the exhilarating diversity of the UK, the torch relay as a boost to awareness of related local issues (such as the Cornish stadium campaign) and the torch relay as pure celebration of the places by which we define ourselves. It’s fascinating to see this in action. It just seems odd that there’s little celebration of the diversity of the UK’s constituent nationalities within the official side of the event. Personally, I would love to see an Olympic stadium full of Union Flags, Saltires, Welsh Dragons and St Piran’s Crosses (the Cornish flag) among many other flags and identities of the United Kingdom – a fantastic picture to send out the the rest of the world. This picture is what I hope Citizen relay will uncover because the experience of this country is anything but ‘uniform’ and the torch relay is a great way of revealing that.

Gordon Hunt

Jennifer Jones has 140 post(s) on Citizen Relay: Tracking the 2012 Torch Around Scotland