A modern blasphemy

There's no denying that the London Olympics provided an awe-inspiring spectacle. And its legacy may well be a lasting one. But it was still far too expensive.

When Alain de Botton appeared at the Edinburgh Festival this week, he spoke about the way in which parts of the secular world can replace the religious world for non-believers. De Botton argues in his newish book Religion for Athiests that, while the "supernatural claims of religion are of course entirely false", religions do still have important things to teach the world.

So, instead of mocking them we should steal from them, looking to them for insights as to how we can do everything from addressing our emotional needs via repetition and time management to building a better sense of community perhaps in the same sort of way that Mass works to "strengthen congregants bonds of affection".

His 'religion for atheists' would be what he calls 'Atheism 2.0'. It would accept that "there is no god, no deities, no supernatural beings, no angels" but it would move on from there, accepting too that most people love the "moralistic communal side" of religion (to say nothing of Christmas carols). You can watch Alain's TED talk on the subject here(and you probably should regardless of whether you are a believer or not).

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However, in his talk this month, he referred to various things that take the place of religion for some of us lectures instead of sermons, museums instead of churches and so on. In passing, he mentioned the Olympics as being something of a religious experience for much of the UK (the Olympics were originally religious of course): the stadiums, the churches, the BBC presenters, the vicars, the gold medal winners, the saints and so on.

If this really was the case in the first half of the month, it makes some sense of this week's mail bag. Why? Because last week, I clearly committed a kind of blasphemy: in my editor's letter I wondered if the £9-15bn the event cost the UK taxpayer wasn't just a little bit too much.

Don't think about it now, I said it might be a bit early instead, wait until the next budget when you can't remember who won the diving and your taxes go up again. Our subscribers didn't like that much. "I look forward", said one (in a sentiment echoed by many), "to your condemnation of that other flippant and unnecessarily expensive celebration, Christmas".

All too many others told me that I have "fallen from grace", that I am guilty of "knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing" (I rather expected a lot of these ones and I certainly got them), that in criticising a "wholly magnificent occasion" I have made myself "ridiculous" and that I have utterly failed to understand that this kind of "national bonding" is priceless. Oh, and that my "negative emotions" are the biggest enemy to recovery there is (beating global deleveraging by a mile it seems).

Oh dear. In my defence, I would say that I didn't mean to suggest that the Olympics weren't fun and that they didn't offer fantastic moments and bring much of London together with rather more community spirit than usual. Of course they did. They were also a nice showcase for our capital city in that, in the end, there were no terrorist attacks and no tube-related disasters. There may even be a legacy in some regeneration and a renewed interest in non-sofa related activities in the UK. That's all nice.

But enjoying something doesn't mean that you get to completely suspend your critical faculties. Just because the Olympics were good doesn't mean that they came in within budget (they were at leastfour times over the original budget which was a mere £2bn).

The fact that the UK managed to get all the venues ready on time also doesn't show that we can manage huge infrastructure projects well. Instead, it shows that given enough money (I repeat,four times the original budget), we can get them done.

There's a difference there, as the excellent John Kay (who thinks we should take a much tougher line on all grossly overpriced projects) says here. It is worth remembering that the Olympic Games held in the UK in 1948 cost £750,000. Adjust for inflation and that's £23m a tiny fraction of even our original 2012 budget of £2bn. I'll leave the final word on this to one of my few supporters in this matter:

"Of course it is a good thing that we, as a country, should support excellence in competitive sport as well as in many other things including science and technology, but these Games seem to have been high-jacked by political and commercial interests and turned into a showbiz style extravaganza regardless of cost, notwithstanding our allegedly parlous financial state as a nation. It seems to me that it is one more example of the contempt in which the political classes hold the general populace when it comes to prudent (Gordon Brown's favourite adjective) and efficient use of tax revenues and the long-term debt outlook."

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.