NBC Bay Area's Raj Mathai interviews British Ambassador to the United States, Sir Peter Westmacott.
Raj Mathai: If the answer to this question is ‘no’ then we are in serious trouble (laughs), but is London ready for the Olympics?
Ambassador Peter Westmacott: London thinks it’s ready. We’ve done everything in good time. Everything’s built, everything’s finished. A little bit of landscaping here and there, some grass being cut. It is on budget and on time. We have done everything we possibly can to ensure that security, which is a big consideration, is also taken care of. So, fingers crossed, we are in great shape for the games.
Raj: Politically speaking is one thing, but just personally, how excited and proud are you to have the Olympics in London?
Ambassador Westmacott: I’m hugely proud that we have got the Olympics in London. I’m not going to say yet that I am proud about the Olympics being a huge success, because we have to wait and see how it’s going to be. But, there is every reason to believe that it’s going to be one of the greatest games ever. I am very excited that we have the Olympics for the third time, which is unheard of. London, being the country that invented the Paralympics back in 1948, has got the Paralympics up in lights alongside the main Olympics. What we have tried to do with this Olympics, in the UK, is ensure that it leaves a real legacy, that it’s sustainable, and that it’s going to be a worthwhile investment for the future. And we feel we’ve got that right. In other words, we’ve really used the money to regenerate parts of the east end of London that were in bad shape. 2 million tons of polluted earth have been recycled. There will be affordable housing for probably 12,000 people once the games are over from the facilities we have built. We have fantastic new infrastructure, transport, stadium, which are going to be used in the future, not standing there like rotting, white elephants. It’s a very sustainable approach, the way we’ve run it. Those are the sorts of things we have tried to pay attention to, to ensure these are going to be good games, and really leave a lasting legacy.
Raj: You’ve talked about a lasting legacy, but critics are saying that London has spent billions of dollars, it’s far too much, and it’s not worth the price. What do you say to them?
Ambassador Westmacott: I would like to believe that the numbers will say that it is worth the price. Much of the money that is being spent is being spent on things that needed to be done anyway and are going to be of lasting value. So there is very little money, we hope, which will be going down the drain. We’d like to think that the Olympics itself will bring in a tremendous amount of other benefits. Perhaps the extra number of visitors who come to London, who wouldn’t have come otherwise; we’ve got to ensure that they have a wonderful experience. But, we’d like to think there will be knock-on effects to the economy, that the improved infrastructure we’ve created will have a lasting effect on the economy. And all of that is going to make it worthwhile. Plus, all of this is of continuing value for the British economy. It has created a lot of employment, and it’s going to be lasting employment. We believe it’s going to be money well spent, but we’ll have to see exactly how the games go, and what the returns are after the event.
Raj: Let’s talk security, since you brought it up. There’s big money, a billion dollars in US money, involved, and British soldiers. It’s almost like it would be a warzone. It’s this something that is disheartening to you, or is this just the price of admission?
Ambassador Westmacott: It’s not just the price of admission for the Olympics; it’s the price of admission for any of these big events that you want to stage. Unfortunately, we have gotten to the stage where there are people who love the idea of taking a major, international event, and making it trouble. Sometimes it might be a hoax, sometimes it might be a real terrorist attack, sometimes it may be bad luck. We have no choice but to ensure that we’ve put in place all possible controls and checks, in case someone has the daft idea to fly an aircraft into the stadium, or into one of the other venues where the Olympics are taking place. It’s a pity to see those sorts of headlines in advance of the Olympics, but I hope anyone who has daft ideas will get the message that the Brits are serious about Olympic security, and will not try anything which would be so irresponsible and inhumane as disrupting the Olympic games with a terrorist event. But, I think we just have accept that’s what we are doing. There will probably be as many as 10,000 soldiers on duty, which will be available if things go wrong. But we obviously hope very much that they won’t be seen at all, and they won’t be needed.
Raj: Are you confident that it will go off without a hitch?
Ambassador Westmacott: I don’t want to chance fortune, but I think we have done all we can in advance of the games to ensure that it will go off without a hitch. And that people who come and people who watch it around the world will have a wonderful experience. But, I will not be 100% confident until we have seen the evidence.
Raj: London is one of the most historical cities in the world. It needs no introduction to the world in terms of the Olympics. But what can the Olympics do for London in this day and age?
Ambassador Westmacott: I think that having the Olympics this year is a big boom for us. I feel lucky to have won the bid and to have them at this time. Despite the fact that London, the United Kingdom, and really the world economy is having a rough ride, the eyes of the world to some extent have been on the UK. We have been doing some of the things that we are good about; we are good at history, pageant, the monarchy, we had a royal wedding, the diamond jubilee, which not every country has a hugely respected and loved monarch on the throne for 60 years. And, there are other things this year that are happening besides the Olympics, such as the World Shakespeare festival, the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth, and events that happen every summer, like Wimbledon. So, what we are also hoping is that all of these great events for 2012 that Britain is great place to learn, to study, to live and invest in. We are very much open to foreigners, visitors, foreign investment. We’ve always been a trading nation. We don’t really mind who is going to be the owner of the value, provided that they own their assets in a responsible fashion. I think the message is that Britain is more open for business than ever and is a business-friendly environment. Britain and the United States have the top 15 universities in the world, and we are delighted to welcome more and more foreign students. We welcome foreigners who want to live, work, settle, and study in our country. Plus, we would like to remind other countries that Britain still has contributions to make, whether it is national security, Parliament membership, the United Nations, our global reach, our global traditions. There are a lot of things we like to believe that the United Kingdom can do to make our world a safer and more prosperous place. And if 2012, the Olympics, and other events that are going on will help us convey that message, we will be thrilled.
Raj: You brought up the royal family. Prince William and Prince Harry really have increased their profile internationally. Obviously that is by design. How come?
Ambassador Westmacott: I think what the royal family has done, in a rather seamless way, is modernize itself. The reality is, the Queen herself was a great innovator, insisting that television cover her coronation, when the senior officials and administrators back in 1953 were saying that they weren’t sure if that was a good idea. The Queen herself has been at the forefront of this modernization and the adaptation of the monarchy to the needs of modern society. There are 16 countries of which she is the head of state. So I think what you have been seeing is Her Majesty continuing her duty with so much professionalism, like she always has, but you’ve also seen the next generation being put to the fore. We saw the photographs of the Buckingham Palace balcony at the end of the Jubilee celebrations, I imagine it was no accident that you saw Her Majesty, you saw the next generation, the Prince of Wales and his wife, and the next generation after that, Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge. That’s the core business of the monarchy for the generations to come. I think that the emphasis there is on continuity, tradition, longevity, but also here is youth, here is the next generation, and here is what we can offer for the future. To me, it seems to be a message that the British people have taken to heart.
Raj: In terms of the Olympics now, what are you looking forward to? What is your favorite event? What are you excited to see?
Ambassador Westmacott: I always get a buzz out of the track events, particularly the 100, 200, and 400m. I love watching the hurdles. I can’t quite understand how people can do that. I think some of the swimming events are amazing, the diving, some of the synchronized swimming. But the Brits are strong at Equestrian events, boating events, sailing. I hope to see some of the rowing events, as well. So, there is plenty there.
Raj: Did you see the sand that they are bringing in?
Ambassador Westmacott: Yes, there is sand on the royal horse guard’s parade. There is beach volleyball occurring on the premises, which he is particularly pleased about. We are taking advantage of the assets that London has got, where we can do so. We’ve got that great, wonderful space... next door to the cabinet office... next door to St. James’ Park, which we are going to be using. We are using what is good about London already, but building what’s new and what we need to, particularly in areas that were in desperate need of renovation.
Raj: First Lady Michelle Obama will be attending the Opening Ceremony, which is very exciting. Were there any conversations about having President Obama come, and is there any disappointment that he hasn’t announced a visit?
Ambassador Westmacott: I think we have got more than 100 heads of government and heads of state coming into the Opening Ceremony. Of course, it was always made very clear that we would be delighted to have the President. But from a very early stage, it has been almost certainly clear that he would not be able to come. But, the First Lady was able to confirm back in March that she would be there on his behalf, so we are delighted that she is coming. I don’t think that there is any particular disappointment. We would have been delighted, of course, but we are thrilled that the First Lady is coming.
Raj: Maybe the most important question: When I go back to London, which pub should I visit? What is your favorite?
Ambassador Westmacott: (Laughs) Maybe you should go to the Two Chairmen. It’s in Whittol where I used to work. But, there are a lot of wonderful pubs and restaurants downtown.