Once, When the Conservatives Were Vanquished
Ken Loach’s documentary opens with refulgent scenes of a joyous day in May 1945. The ebullient faces of the milling crowds, of civilians and soldiers back on leave frolicking in the unwonted heat, bespeak more than relief that the most destructive war in human history had finally come to an end. As interviews with people who lived through that era make clear, the war awakened a fervid desire in the trampled multitudes to build a Britain worthy of their sacrifices. The ‘20s and ‘30s had been fraught with mass unemployment and chronic poverty. After dying in their hundreds of thousands to defeat Nazism, people were resolved to irrevocably consign the penurious days of laissez-faire capitalism to the scrap heap of history.
Loach’s film brilliantly conveys the spirit of hope that enthused the masses, sweeping Labour to power in a landslide victory against their erstwhile coalition partners the Conservatives. For the first time the state, steered by a party with avowedly socialist aims, was dedicated with a will to lifting millions out of poverty. In little over a few years, vast swathes of the economy were nationalised in the public interest: gas, electricity, mines, transport fell under the purview of boards of directors responsible to the people’s elected representatives in parliament. Slums were cleared and replaced with high-quality, affordable dwellings to house the working classes. A national health service was created offering health care free at the point of access to everyone, alongside a systematic program of unemployment benefits and pensions providing cradle to the grave social security. All of this was achieved in spite of the massive financial burdens and austerities imposed by 6 years of unremitting war.
At a time when the legacy of those monumental years is beset on all sides by fierce criticism from both the right and titular left in British politics, ‘The Spirit of ’45’ is a rousing call to arms to defend what remains of the welfare state against the insurgent philosophy of markets. Avoiding the temptation to omniscient narration, the film unfolds mostly through the observations of ordinary people who were both beneficiaries and participants in that inspiring endeavour to build a ‘new Jerusalem.’
What emerges is not a ponderous chronology of events, but an enthralling exploration of the economic ideas, frustrations and dreams underlying this vast project to eradicate the evils of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease – the five enemies enumerated by the new government. It is above all a pointed rebuff to politicians of all hues who have striven to destroy this legacy, by propagating the venomous creed that greed is a desirable trait and free markets can somehow be allied with the pursuit of the public good.
The dolorous tales recounted in the film of the inter-war years conjure a striking picture of the almost unrelievedly harsh lives eked out by the working classes: mothers dying in childbirth for want of money to pay for a hospital bed, terrible industrial accidents resulting from the prioritising of profits over lives, vermin infested slums where the malnourished poor were penned up like cattle. These accounts are an invaluable reminder that the model of state intervention Labour adopted was not the socialist whimsy its detractors are so apt to paint it as. The fanciful idealists after the war were those who cleaved to the belief that private enterprise could revitalise Britain’s shattered economy, despite the incontestable evidence of its singular failure to do so in the twenty years following WW1. The dire poverty experienced by the masses bred a determination that the war should not simply be remembered as a bloody hiatus in Britain’s history, but as a decided break with that discredited economic system which had been productive of so much misery for so many. The generation of 1945 would be perplexed to find we are again shackled in our thinking by the same stultifying economic orthodoxies that they had once deemed a thing of the past.
‘The Spirit of 45’, however, does not slip into being a doleful meditation on the ills inflicted by capitalism, plentiful though they are. It instead captures the unalloyed joy people experienced as they were able for the first time to take control of their lives, freed of the economic obstacles that had insuperably stood in their way. A miner tells of the tears that streamed down his colleagues’ faces on learning, after so many fruitless struggles to improve their working conditions, Labour had won the election and the industry would consequently be nationalised. One man from Liverpool, who grew up sleeping five to a bed in slum accommodation, describes moving into a newly built council house as the ‘best thing that ever happened to me.’ A doctor speaks of his pleasure at conveying to a mother of ill children that she would not have to pay for his visit, because medical care was henceforth to be free.
Nearly 70 years later, the far-reaching nature of these policies is often not adequately recognised. In 1945, the electorate was presented with two stark alternatives. On the one hand, there stood Churchill and the Conservative party, desiccated ideological relics of the old order who in the wake of victory expected working people mutely to resign themselves to the tribulations of the market place, resuming their customary role as wage-slaves. On the other hand, Labour offered an exhilarating opportunity to repudiate those economic nostrums that had reigned unchallenged in the seats of power for decades. Whereas previously, the idea that the state had any marked role to play in directing the economy had been scoffed at, the war exposed the patent inability of the free market to effectively marshal the country’s resources for the effort needed to defeat Hitler. The state had found it necessary to assume control of the economy during war. Why could the state not take control of the economy during peace-time in order to defeat poverty?
One myth the film effectively punctures is the idea of interclass unity arising from the nation’s shared military travails. Churchill, for example, has been so lionised by posterity that his distinguished record as an arch-reactionary has been all but excised from history. He was by no means a figure of such uniform adulation at the time. Indeed, many working people retained an intense revulsion towards the politician who, as home secretary, had called out the troops against striking miners, and so obviously relished his role as a scourge of the working class that he had doubled as both Chancellor of the Exchequer and editor of an anti-union newspaper during the General Strike of 1926. In the 1945 election, Churchill reverted to form, presenting a shambling, pathetic figure as he resorted to issuing bizarre warnings about socialism degenerating into a totalitarian system run by a Gestapo-like security service. What the majority of people thought of his ominous predictions is indicated by the fact he was ignominiously booted from office, with the Conservatives gaining half the number of seats won by Labour.
To be sure, the story of the immediate post-war period cannot be summed up as the unmitigated triumph of the working classes over the stalwarts of the old regime. The government sought to remedy capitalism’s most glaring flaws, not overturn its fundamental precepts, and there were significant drawbacks to the way in which nationalisation was conceived. In large part, Labour’s outlook was marred by an eagerness to forestall criticism from those targeted for expropriation. Between the wars, industrialists had fought tooth and nail to retain utter control over their businesses. So vast and unprecedented was the program now proposed, the government felt it must do everything in its power to allay fears that nationalisation heralded changes to the economic landscape of greater magnitude than was actually the case. Private owners were thus handsomely compensated and given key positions on the newly constituted boards of directors. Nationalised industries retained much the same structures of top down management characteristic of privately owned firms, with workers having little say in how they were run. To its credit, ‘Spirit of 45’ does not pass over these problems, suggesting that the imperfect nature of Labour’s reforms may explain why they were so easily eroded during the 1980s.
Unfortunately, reviewers have been keen to disparage the film as propaganda. In the Guardian, historian Steven Fielding took issue with the notion that the majority of Britons were ardent socialists, a claim that the film does not in any event make. He denigrates the mass wave of enthusiasm that swept Labour to power, ascribing its electoral victory to multifarious motives, among which he implausibly suggests was the desire to ensure the Conservatives did not enjoy too large a majority in the new Parliament. Fielding concludes that Loach’s film would have been ‘better called The Myth of ’45, for it peddles a fantasy, albeit one that provides comfort during these hard times for some on the left.’ Ian Jack also objects to the film’s supposed crude characterisations, stating that Loach’s ‘story has three simple acts. Working-class people were unhappy, then they were happy, then they were unhappy again.’ In the New Statesman, Kevin Meagher repeats the charge of historical inaccuracy and myth making, though contending that Loach’s portrayal is not entirely devoid of merit. He condescendingly argues that myths are rightly treasured by both the right and the left, playing ‘an important part in our politics, serving as shorthand for big, ungainly ideas; helping inspire, provoke and, crucially, motivate voters.’
These reviewers themselves are victims of a flawed understanding of history. With the 1945 election looming, few could have been in doubt as to the unambiguous fork in the road they were confronted with, or the drastic renunciation of outworn policies that voting Labour entailed. The hyperbolic claims of a totalitarian system run by the Gestapo spoke volumes about the loathing the Conservatives had for state intervention to ease the plight of the poor. As Churchill poured imprecations on the unaffordability of Labour’s manifesto, and emphasised in melodramatic tones the need to maintain wartime unity, the majority of people rightly chose to see this as the plaintive whining of an economic class fearing for its privileges.
The idea that Labour’s loss of the election 6 years later, as Kevin Meagher suggests, indicated the shallowness of support for left-wing policies is also misleading. Labour in fact polled several hundred thousand more votes than the Conservatives, though, owing to the geographical distribution of that vote, ultimately gained less seats. The close result by no means arose from disenchantment with nationalised industries or the welfare state. Since 1947, Labour had charted a markedly more right wing course, preferring consolidation to further nationalisations. The 1951 election came after the announcement of public spending cuts to fund an expanded military budget, precipitating the resignation of several ministers. In the end, the truest gauge of the deep-seated appeal Labour’s left-wing policies enjoyed is the fact no government dared tamper with them for the next thirty years.
What are we to make, however, of two reputedly left-wing papers – the Guardian and New Statesman – publishing such dispiriting reviews? This tepid reaction is part of a wider malaise that Ken Loach correctly diagnoses in his film. The resurgence of the right in British politics has deprived the public of a genuine left alternative. Labour has transmogrified into a party that mindlessly parrots the virtues of the market and private enterprise, whilst formerly left leaning media have followed suit in pretending that the frivolities of modern electoral politics amount to major ideological points of difference. To justify this consensus bound spectrum of opinion, media pundits are forced to engage in their very own mythologizing. Steven Fielding, for instance, writes in his review that ‘the danger of believing in a pristine moment is that it encourages adherents to denigrate the necessary compromises of the messy present.’ Kevin Meagher also believes that the poetic idealism of ‘The Spirit of ‘45 obscures the necessary task of ‘governing in prose’. He argues that for Labour leader Ed Miliband ‘the risk in meeting the public’s desire for a better tomorrow is that it becomes a casual promise that it will be delivered’, whereas real, hard-headed politics requires abandonment of utopian visions. In this mythological view, state intervention was always an insupportable flight of fancy of the left, bound to fall apart sooner or later as the superiority of the free market became manifest. Thankfully, Blair came along and disencumbered Labour of its burdensome commitment to social justice, enabling it to enter the 21st century as an electoral force and responsible party of power.
There were many problems afflicting the Labour government of 1945-51.
Ministers were not revolutionaries seeking the wholesale abolition of capitalism, and there were sharp constraints to how far they were prepared to go in nationalising the economy. But they were unabashed in expressing their view that the free market was inimical to human welfare, and must be subordinated to the public interest if the mass of Britons were to escape dire poverty. It was a time when even politicians like Herbert Morrison, on the moderate wing of the labour party, could write: ‘Our Labour party is a Socialist Party – and proud of it. It makes no secret of its Socialist beliefs.’ They were aware of the allure that creeping privatisation exercised on the imagination and the danger of supposing that private firms could administer welfare relief better than the state. Aneurin Bevan – the pioneering Health Minister who founded the NHS – anticipated in one parliamentary debate the proper response to these ideas: ‘The only remedy the Tories have for every problem is to enable private enterprise to suck at the teats of the state.’ Despite the carping of modern day critics, the success of Labour’s radical program in improving the lives of millions is undeniable.
New Labour, however, can boast no comparable achievement. Its leading luminaries are overwrought with love of the market, with Ed Miliband rapturous about the possibilities of a ‘responsible capitalism’, even though there is precious little evidence that endless privatisation and sub-contracting has been anything but disastrous. Regardless of the bragging about being a more modern, less hide-bound party, it is in fact far less representative of the nation as a whole, never having attained the number of votes Old Labour did back in 1951. As the Tories strive to destroy the last vestiges of the welfare state, Labour politicians have abandoned the fight, distancing themselves from the public’s fury at Coalition attacks on the post-war years’ resplendent legacy. In this depressing political climate, the spirit of 45 is sorely needed to inspire us with hope for the future.
Joseph Richardson is a freelance journalist in London. He studied history at Merton College, Oxford. His blog can be found here: josephrichardsonblog.wordpress.com