Leon Brown on
Spirit of ’45
UK (89 minutes)
Remembering the "New Jerusalem"
We got into bed at night with vermin. And then when we went to school in the morning we got hit by the teacher because we had dirty knees.
Liverpudlian docker, Sam Watts’s reminiscences of a poverty-blighted childhood during the 1930s depression, overlaid with images of bed sheets crawling with lice, in Ken Loach’s Spirit of ’45, a feature-length documentary about the unfulfilled and betrayed promise of the 1945 postwar settlement, was for me the film’s pivotal moment. This was not just because I could literally observe the grimaces of the largely ageing and middle-class members of the audience surrounding me; even in the silvery half-light of a crowded weekday matinee. It was also because it provided the most powerful reminder of the rationale behind the establishment of the welfare state – now facing sustained assault by the most socially regressive and right-wing government since Stanley Baldwin’s National Government of the 1930s. It further underscored why it is imperative that everyone who believes in a civilised society, in which the poor are not demonised and pushed further into a life of squalor and misery, joins together in a new movement, on the left of British politics, to protect the welfare state.
This of course was the thematic thrust of the entire 89 minutes of Spirit of ‘45: a message conveyed simply and starkly in glorious monochrome (excepting the amusing clips of 'wannabe' Jane Russells in Leicester Square on VE Day symbolising those heady initial days of post war euphoria and optimism). The film took the viewer from the slums inhabited by the urban working class in the1930s - who then comprised the majority of the UK population - to the vision of a ‘New Jerusalem’ and a country ‘fit for heroes’ symbolised by the Labour landslide of 1945 with its manifesto pledges of a National Health Service, wholesale nationalisation of the public utilities (water, electricity, gas and the railways) and public ownership of the coal industry.
It was heartening that Loach assembled an army of defenders of the post-1945 Settlement which cut across the class divide: from doctors and economists to former dockers and coal miners. Even Tony Benn made an appearance. Yet it was noticeable and dispiriting that, like the audience around me, none of these defenders – excellent though their contributions were in the case of veteran doctors and doctors’ collectors - were below the age of 60. Indeed it is ironic that although the young are experiencing greater unemployment, debt and poor housing than any other age group they have more scepticism towards the welfare state than their parents and grandparents. Alarmingly, a recent poll by ComRes shows that the proportion of those aged 18-34 who believed over half of benefit claimants were "scroungers" exceeded all other age groups by an eye-watering 10 percentage points.
Unquestionably the film’s vignettes of the privations of South Wales miners under the pre-war overlordship of ‘tyrant’ pit owners (the audience was reminded that they were blue-bloods and included the Bowes –Lyons : the Queen Mother’s birth family), were the most poignant moments. One miner recalled the death of his friend when the mine collapsed on him due to the pit owner’s refusal to invest in roof supports. Another recounted the story of a miner’s family being thrown out of their cottage, tied to the pit owner’s country estate, when their child was caught apple scrumping in the grounds.
It was reminiscences like these, by and about ordinary people, which brought the film to life and avoided it lapsing into clichéd history. Credit must also be given to Loach for his canonisation of Aneurin Bevan – a man whom most people, judging by my own experience of working in education and the health service, have never heard of implying a narrowness in the current history syllabus taught in British schools. Labour’s 1945 Secretary of State for Health, was a miner from the South Wales valleys and bona fide working class hero – unlike the vast majority of today’ s Labour Party the gentrification of which the film correctly pinpoints as one of the key reasons for the decline in working class mass political engagement. In many ways, along with Keir Hardie (the father of the Labour Party), Bevan is the unsullied hero not only of this film but also the entire British Labour Movement. His monument, of course, is the National Health Service, an institution now facing a mortal threat to its continued survival and whose foundation Bevan only ensured in 1948 by ‘stuffing the doctors mouths with silver’ after the British Medical Association voted against its formation.
Another qualified strength of the film was its realism about the ‘worm in the apple of 1945’ – the fact that the nationalised industries were not run at the local level by workers cooperatives, as the Left had hoped, but instead by state bureaucrats. This involved rehabilitating those familiar pantomime villains - the pre-war pit owners. However, the film missed a trick in fully explaining exactly why workers’ control would have been preferable to state control. Surely any management (even a management of workers) will inevitably put the interests of management first unless they have to stand for regular election and are answerable to their workforce.
This qualified strength was slightly undermined by a lack of clear explanation as to why the welfare state came into being. The welfare state was advocated by the Beveridge Report of 1943 and the Labour Party and then reluctantly accepted by the Conservatives (who retained the NHS and almost all the postwar nationalisations for three decades) not so much out of idealism but out of far-sighted political pragmatism: namely the fear that unless the living conditions of the working class were substantially improved there was a risk of social upheaval and even revolution in Britain on the 1917 Russian model.
Ironically, the principal criticism of the film by mainstream newspaper reviewers – that the narrative swerved abruptly from footage of the Festival of Britain in 1951 to those endlessly replayed, hiss-inducing images of Margaret Thatcher entering Downing Street in May 1979, disingenuously quoting St Francis of Assisi – with no reference to the intervening 28 years – was in some ways a strength. This is because it incorporated an effective semi split-screen analogue midway which allowed the viewer to compare the gains for working people in the immediate aftermath of 1945, covered by the film’s first half, with the slow and systematic erosion of the post war settlement in the form of privatisation (with catastrophic results in the case of transport and gas, water and electricity) during the 1980s and 1990s. There was also some coverage of the fragmentation of the NHS beginning with the contracting out of hospital cleaning in 1983 and continuing with the internal market and PFI of the New Labour years and now the threatened total breakup of the entire NHS with the Coalition’s Health and Social Care Bill – much of which comes into effect in April 2013.
However, what this ‘split screen’ approach lacked was a complete lack of analysis as to why Mrs Thatcher came to power and why her ideology stayed in office long after she left Number 10, was then adopted by her New Labour successors and still remains the failed blueprint for governing Britain and much of the world. This is integral to building an understanding of why it has proven near impossible for the British Left to defeat the forces Thatcherism unleashed, namely: greed, rampant selfishness, callousness, cultural philistinism, inter- class hatred and xenophobia, even had the Labour Party, after 1983, made a concerted effort to do so. There was not the slightest exploration of Thatcherism’s enduring popular appeal to around half the electorate - including many New Labour and Liberal Democrat voters: the aspirational working and middle classes - who instinctively supported and were duped by Thatcherism’s gospel of patriotism, aspiration, low taxes, home ownership, contempt for welfare recipients and simplistic ‘private is good’ vs ‘public is bad’ dogma. This appeal was largely choreographed by the tabloid press which gave Thatcher’s government almost unlimited patronage due to her smashing of the print unions and relaxation of newspaper ownership laws which allowed the likes of Rupert Murdoch to effectively buy the political system on the basis presumably of ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’.
Equally significant was Thatcher’s calamitous early 1980s monetarist experiment which led to a final showdown with British industry - actually in decline since the late 19th century and something not mentioned by the film. The early 1980s recession, caused by strict control of the money supply, was wholly orchestrated to break the unions, in particular the National Union of Mineworkers during the Miners Strike by causing mass unemployment and inflating the power of the City of London to a level where it could bring the British and world economy to its knees in 2008. Thatcher changed the world - largely for the ill - simply because the British people of 1979 had ceased to be the same people they were in 1945. By 1979 there were several million more middle class people than in 1945 and their numbers were to swell further due to increased access to easy credit and cheap mortgages fuelled by relentless Tory and Labour deregulation of the banks between 1979 and 2007.
The reason Thatcher was able to completely smash the post-war social democratic consensus - which had spanned traditional party allegiances - was because the British people, by and large, became aspirational suburbanites: disgusted with the trade unions after the 1978-1979 Winter of Discontent, falling living standards, high taxation and engulfed by a despair engendered by oil shock inflation, unemployment and the national humiliation of the IMF bailout of the British economy 1976. It was little wonder therefore that Thatcherism’s sham optimism exploited this mood of hopelessness - symbolised for many by the excesses of the trade unions in the 1970s – and was subsequently allowed to invade every area of British life.
Undeniably, Thatcherism’s real agenda was not to improve the lives of ordinary people (wages have remained stagnant for the middle classes and have fallen year-on-year for the poorest since the mid-seventies) but rather ‘to bring about a fundamental and shift in the balance of power and wealth (in favour of rich people and their families)’ to grotesquely parody a key sentence in the Labour Programme 1973. This, and the creation of a massive underclass (the dreaded and demonised so-called ‘chavs’), who are now scapegoated and exploited at will by comedy shows like Little Britain and the benefits system, permitted by the early 1980s shake -out of British industry, is Thatcherism’s most decisive achievement although it also represents its most abject failure and total moral bankruptcy.
Although one does not expect or even desire a Ken Loach film to be ideologically even-handed little mention is given of the failure of the British Left since 1945 to defend and consolidate the post war settlement and mould it around a changing world as the social democrats in Scandinavia, Germany and France did with much success: using a mixed economy which involved sustained investment in industry, financial services and a strong welfare state to promote economic growth and steadily close the gap between rich and poor.
Instead the film suggests, only partially correctly, that the government ‘failed to invest in industry’ (in comparison to our continental neighbours research and development in the UK was admittedly less) but does not acknowledge that the oil shock and hyperinflation of the mid-seventies wiped out the effectiveness of any government investment no matter how massive: a loop of unprofitability intensified by restrictive management structures, militant unions, overmanning and most crucially globalisation as exemplified by the fiasco of nationalised automobile companies such as British Leyland and Meriden which opened the door to Thatcher to deliver the coup de grace to British industry in 1980-82.
All in all, though, the film’s humane and impassioned plea for a return to the spirit of national optimism and solidarity of 1945, in order to erase growing inequality and hand power back to ordinary people, is heartening and welcome. This is despite an occasionally sketchy reading of history coupled with a lack of realism about the true situation facing this country and continent: a landscape of possibly permanent government and private debt and retrenchment, Victorian levels of inequality and an entrenched plutocratic oligarchy – who will resist all political efforts (even if the will existed) to curb their profits and power. They are now arguably stronger than at any time since the Edwardian era.
The mood of the British people in 2013, brainwashed by the media and anaesthetised by consumerism and sport, sadly does not remotely resemble the mood of the British people in 1945 although social conditions are indeed hurtling back to where they were in the 1930s. The film tacitly recognises this suggesting that ‘the idea of socialism’ in Britain ‘is very weak’ ‘whereas capitalism…’ despite its clear and abundant failures ‘…is still strong.’ Unfortunately, it took such consciousness about the failings of capitalism, on a massive scale, intensified by a depression and world war and assisted by massive injections of American aid into Europe and Britain, to change the system last time around. It is difficult to identify the factors which could trigger change this time around barring revolution, war or massive public engagement in political action - any of which may eventually occur if the living standards of the middle classes continue to decline indefinitely; not an impossibility.
As for UK Uncut and Occupy while they are welcome movements they currently only number their supporters in the tens of thousands whereas hundreds of thousands if not millions are needed. However, in the UK’s current socio-economic climate where ingrained media-conditioned political apathy, conservatism and class division are reflected by astonishing levels of tabloid-misinformed hostility towards welfare claimants and widespread veneration of the class system (exemplified by last year’s Jubilee and the popularity of witless soap-operas like Downton Abbey), it is difficult to envisage how the welfare state and the NHS can be saved let alone strengthened. Equally it is not easy to see how British industry can be resurrected when China and India can endlessly produce consumer goods far more cheaply with scant regard for the wages or living conditions of its workers.
It is Spirit of ‘45’s complete overlooking of the fact that socialism, if it is to revive and prosper as a political force, has to do so on an international scale, rather than in just one country, which is thus possibly its most serious flaw.
Leon Brown © 2013