The Spirit of ’45: a flawed but powerful message for contemporary politics

You would need a heart of stone – or to be Liam Byrne – not to shed a tear during The Spirit of ’45.  My moment came when the retired doctor – one of a number of individuals whose reflections and reminiscences punctuated the narrative, and whose demeanour might have been made for a white coat and stethoscope – recalled how on the first day of the NHS, he was making a house call to a family and heard a child coughing upstairs, and offered to help.  The mother demurred, obviously worried by the cost, until the doctor gently reminded her that his visits were now free. It’s a story that has all sorts of resonances, not least of tales from my own family history of when the arrival of the NHS  eased life so significantly for my grandmother and my semi-invalid, weak-chested grandfather.

Ken Loach’s film tells the story of how a nation mobilised for total war determined never to allow the squalor and poverty of the 1930s to be repeated and elected a Labour government on an avowedly socialist platform, and how that Government took the pillars of the economy into public ownership, built good quality social housing, and set up the National Health Service.  He then jumps forward thirty years to Thatcher and discusses how the structures that had been established after 1945 were dismantled and returned to management for profit, focussing in particular on the brutality visited on striking miners in the 1985 Strike,  and culminating in the destruction of the NHS under the Coalition.  But the film also shows the disappointment that the structures of the new nationalised industries did not mean workers’ control – although nationalisation brought huge gains (for example the ending of the priority of output over safety in the mining industry) the structures of management remained fundamentally unchanged, with the newly nationalised industries being managed from the top down (although paradoxically the union officials interviewed in the post-1970 sections of the film all argued that privatisation meant that the efficiencies of central strategic planning were no longer to be had). The narrative is carried on by archive footage and narration intermingled with comment from a number of people – a man who grew up in the pre-war Liverpool slums, a Welsh miner, a group of retired nurses and our doctor.  The post-Thatcher narrative was carried on by a succession of Union officials, who emphasised the key role of class in the politics of the era and argued that Labour had abandoned its working class roots.  It ends with a powerful and emotional message about the witness of those who lived through the post-war years, and the imperative of passing their hope and belief on to a young generation that had few reasons for either.

It is a powerful, emotional film – it is shamelessly polemical, often in revealing ways.  Footage of the 1945 election campaign shows Churchill not as the powerful war leader, but strangely glassy-eyed in front of the camera in what seemed like a precursor of a party political broadcast, or hesitant in front of a hostile, heckling crowd. Or the crucial fact – often overlooked in the trope of Churchill as triumphant war leader – that on the home front, and in the organisation of wartime production, Britain effectively already had a Labour government, in which Labour Ministers directed the command economy on which victory had depended.  Elsewhere the manipulation was more obvious – Margaret Thatcher’s conference speeches interspersed with the shots of the more grotesquely eccentric party faithful, or where at the end – after the film’s witnesses had expressed their optimism – the opening shots of VE Day celebrations were repeated, this time in colour in contrast to the monochrome of the rest of the film.

There were serious omissions, too.  Not just sociological oddities like the largely-forgotten fact that Britain was consumed by a crime-wave in the years immediately following the war, but most significantly the fact that the British economy was completely shattered by the war – a fact mentioned but whose implications (profoundly important, I’d argue, in making a contemporary link) were not considered.   Economics was barely mentioned – no more than a passing reference to Keynes.

There were a number of thoughts that I took away from the film:

First, following on from the point about how Labour had directed the domestic war effort, I wondered whether 1945 was a unique moment in history that made the achievements of the Attlee Government possible.  The war had demonstrated that a planned, centralised economy could work, in a way that was unparalleled before or since.  Perhaps – just perhaps – part of Labour’s triumph in 1945 was down to an acceptance of the use of such methods to avoid the chaos that followed the First World War; perhaps the return to the Tories in 1951 was a sign that the moment had passed, and that politics as usual – based around appeals to the individual rather than the collective – had returned.

Second, the film had almost nothing to say about economics, but the economic background of the Attlee Government is of central importance; and the comparison with the modern economic climate is instructive.  After six years of total war the British economy was shattered and its infrastructure was worn out.  At a time when we are being told that we must endure the economics of austerity because we lived beyond our means, and in response to the economic crisis of 2007-8, it is worth remembering that the creation of the NHS and the building of social housing to give working people decent, secure homes as of right took place against an immeasurably worse economic situation – albeit one that reflected the necessities of national survival rather than the casino economics of bankers’ Ponzi schemes.  The austerity of the late 1940s and the persistence of rationing were barely mentioned; but surely played a part in the return of politics as normal in 1951. It is additionally almost forgotten that the Attlee government presided over the most fundamental economic redistribution of modern times – in which wages for working people rose decisively in contrast to the wealth of the rentier class.  At a time when we are seeing the reverse taking place it seems important to make the link between social progress and redistribution. Moreover, there is an interesting parallel between the nationalisation of the coal, steel and transport industries and the original motivation behind Thatcher’s privatisations – the need to invest in infrastructure that was clapped out.

Third, the film does not consider the fact that the Labour Party of 1945 emerged from the split of 1931, in which the Labour leadership went into coalition to form a National Government.  It was a party that had explicitly rejected the fiscal orthodoxy and the reductions in the living standards of working people that Ramsay Macdonald had embraced as part of a flawed Westminster consensus.  It’s important because Labour’s leadership today looks much more like Ramsay Macdonald than George Lansbury; fiscally orthodox and apparently quite willing to live with cuts in living standards – including benefits – in the name of economic necessity.  The economics-free evasions of One Nation Labour (which I have blogged about here) look very much like the sort of thing that the Labour leaders of 1945 had consciously rebelled against in 1931; Labour in 1945 was confident in its theory.

Finally, there was a powerful sense that the witness of the participants in the film was undmediated.  Apart from a few comments about the way the media attacked Aneurin Bevan, there was almost no mention of the media.  We were firmly in the world of authentic experience – of consciousnesses formed by daily realities, not by the mediation of mass media.  This was a world of reality-based politics.

So, where  does this leave us in 2013, when the apparatus of decency that Attlee built has largely been dismantled, and we are living through the last days of the NHS as Bevan conceived it?  In a week in which a Labour front-bench, faced with a situation in which unemployed people were illegally stripped of their benefits, chose not to oppose a Bill that would nullify the redress that these people were entitled to under the law, the conclusion must be that Labour, in its present form, is not remotely capable of acting as the vehicle for any optimism that the tide against austerity economics can be turned.  Interviewees like Tony Mulhearn talked of the way in which Labour was no longer a working-class party, and no longer spoke for working people; the fact that the industries have changed and the people for whom Labour is failing to speak are now supermarket workers, contract cleaners, call-centre workers and indeed the unemployed forced on to workfare schemes rather than workers in giant, unionised industries does not negate the challenge (I could add from my own experience of my short and unhappy membership of the Labour Party in the late 1990s, what really motivated local party activists in my part of the world was not speaking for the vulnerable but expelling socialists – I remember one incident in which a local party panjandrum told us that the selection of a certain individual as a council candidate would be viewed with disfavour by No 10 –  leaving aside political considerations, an organisation that relied on such arrant nonsense to rationalise a witch-hunt had some pretty basic issues to deal with). Labour’s assimilation into the neoliberal mainstream means that it remains part of the problem, not the solution.

So where does the solution lie? Ken Loach has launched an appeal for unity on the Left to oppose austerity and to put into practice the calls for a new politics based around the values of 1945.  Leftish Labour figures like Owen Jones and Green MP Caroline Lucas are involved in launching the People’s Assembly to re-energise the Left and to recapture the values of 1945; it’s a huge but necessary task, and one that I cannot see the current Labour leadership tolerating; the challenge for the Labour left of recapturing a party that filleted its internal democracy in the 1990s to make way for new Labour looks pretty insurmountable, and Labour has long been a party intolerant of pluralism and dissent.  For me, part of the key lies in an issue that did not register in Loach’s film at all – the fact that any modern socialism must be Green, and conversely that Greens must be socialist, because the planet is under dire threat and the root of that threat is that power and wealth are in the hands of a minority determined to exploit the planet for their own benefit, rather than sustaining and nurturing it for the benefit of all; it is already obvious that in the global sense, environmental catastrophe is a matter of equality, or in Loach’s terms a class issue.  And the threat to our planet is as dangerous as the total war of 1939-45 – more so in fact – and it is difficult to see how it can be avoided without the sort of mass mobilisation that won that war, involving strong – but democratically accountable – state institutions.

Perhaps the real Spirit of ’45 is this; that people came together, worked collectively in war and for a brief few years managed to work collectively to change their society immeasurably for the better.  But over time our political culture shifted back towards individualism and lost that sense of the collective.  Faced with environmental degradation and what looks like a fundamental crisis of capitalism, we need to rediscover that collective spirit.  But we have a huge way to go.

3 thoughts on “The Spirit of ’45: a flawed but powerful message for contemporary politics

  1. The idea that 1945 was only possible because of the success of war socialism is a popular revisionist theory. It tends to go along with the claim that having tasted socialism, the UK electorate turned up their collective nose and rejected Labour in 1951. Both claims are dubious.

    1945 was clearly the culmination of a steady trend (expressed in Labour’s share of general election votes) that started in 1900. Loach correctly puts the victory in the context of the 1930s rather than the impact of the camaraderie of wartime.

    1945 marked a high point in Labour’s vote share, but not in the quantum of votes. In fact, Labour polled more in 1950 and 1951. What’s more, it polled more than the Conservatives in 1951 (though with a much reduced lead). The reason it lost that election was not a drop in its own support but the collapse of the Liberal vote, which bulked up the Tory vote. The structural bias of seats (country vs town) did the rest. Here are the figures: votes in millions (and percentage in parentheses) …

    45: Lab 12.0 (49.7); Con 8.7 (36.2); Lib 2.2 (9.0)
    50: Lab 13.2 (46.1); Con 11.5 (40.0); Lib 2.6 (9.1)
    51: Lab 13.9 (48.8); Con 13.7 (48.0); Lib 0.7 (2.5)

    There’s more on this (and zombies) at:

  2. Pingback: Weekly Update #010 | Things Can Only Get Better

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