The Spirit of ’45: Be inspired but learn the lessons - Nick Wrack reviews Ken Loach’s latest film.
Those familiar with Ken Loach’s films will not be surprised to learn that his new film The Spirit of ‘45 is a passionate evocation of a period in which the idea of socialism seemed capable of becoming a reality.
Its launch only a few weeks ago has helped to spur thousands to sign up to the call to discuss and debate the need for a new party.
Using black and white archive footage and working-class people talking about how their lives were changed, the film conveys the collective sense of expectation and hope created by the landslide election of the Labour Government in 1945.
After six years of war, following on from the mass unemployment, poverty and endless hardship of the 1930s, working-class people were determined never to go back. They believed that they had fought and defeated fascism abroad and they now wanted to deal with the bosses and toffs at home. They were sick of a society where “everything was run by rich people for rich people”. Now it was their turn.
No one could tell them that there was no such thing as class. Life was “them and us”. They knew that back in civilian life the officers would be on one side of the barrier and they would be on the other. Working-class people who lived through it tell of their living conditions: children without shoes, sleeping five to a vermin-ridden bed; unemployed fathers picking lumps of coal from slag heaps; a young girl being taken to see the length of the dole queue so she could know what unemployment looked like; miners maimed or killed at work because the only thing the mine owner cared about was profit. Class divisions were visible everywhere. One tram journey is described, with the conductor announcing all the shops for the well-off until it arrives at the terminus or “poverty park”.
Clips of Labour leaders speaking about socialism contrast with an image of Tory leader Winston Churchill, who had just led Britain to victory in the war, heckled by workers at an election rally. The Labour manifesto was certainly radical, setting out an extensive programme of nationalisation and other substantial reforms. Perhaps most significant of all, especially given the recent death blows to the NHS, was its creation in 1948 under the leadership of Aneurin Bevan.
And reforms followed. Alongside the creation of the NHS came the nationalisation of transport, the mines, the docks, electricity and gas. An extensive programme of house building was begun to replenish the stock destroyed in the blitz and replace the old slums.
The impact of these changes cannot be underestimated. For the first time, over a million working-class families had decent homes, with access to hot water, electricity and indoor lavatories. One woman describes how her father cherished the letter which told him he was getting a council house; he carried it in his wallet for the rest of his life. Deaths and injuries in the mines fell to an all time low. Parents no longer had to turn away the doctor for lack of money when their children were sick. Working-class people started to live longer.
But the film also begins to reveal how these reforms remained half-measures, destined to be whittled away over time. The hope and expectations were to be dashed, some sooner, some later. Now we can see that every aspect of the ‘welfare state’ initiated by the 1945 Labour government has been, or is being, smashed to pieces before our eyes.
This inevitable rolling back of the most audacious programme of reforms ever seen in Britain was built into the reforms from the beginning, in the way they were perceived, the way they were carried out and in their partial nature. Of course, the Labour leaders wanted to eradicate the poverty, the destitution and the mass unemployment of the 1930s but they had no intention of destroying the capitalist system that bred them. They wanted to introduce reforms into the system that would alleviate the worst aspects of it. And for a long time the reforms did that.
However, from the outset the changes were all carried out from above without involving the working-class itself in drawing up the plans or in implementing them. Even the public service broadcasts that promoted the reforms were dominated by plummy, posh, public-school accents, telling the working-class about the changes and unintentionally revealing which class was still going to be in charge.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss
The newly nationalised industries were not run by the workers or consumers in their own interests but were run as before except with an appointed bureaucracy instead of a private owner, in the interests of the wider capitalist economy. Wages may have increased and conditions improved but the relationship between boss and worker remained.
The first chairman of the National Coal Board on its creation in 1947 was Lord Hyndley, a former director of the Bank of England and a managing director of a mine-owning company. The former mine owners, who had made millions of pound in profits through their grotesque exploitation of the miners, without regard for working conditions or pay, were paid massive compensation for their loss. The government paid them collectively £338 million (£11.5bn in 2012 money). The big four railway companies were virtually bankrupt at the time they were taken over, yet their shareholders were guaranteed a yearly income in the form of British Transport Stock. No doubt a large part of our present national debt can be traced back to the compensation paid out to the owners of the industries that were nationalised.
Even with the formation of the NHS a compromise was built in from the start. Free health care was available for all for the first time ever, but the consultants had to be bought off at great cost. More importantly, the pharmaceutical companies remained in private hands, able to use the NHS as a billion pound cash machine for decades to come.
The Beveridge Report, which set out the basis for the welfare reforms of the 1945 Labour government, was not a socialist document. Beveridge was a Liberal who saw his proposals as a way of helping British capitalism become more productive and therefore more competitive.
Root and branch
The British working class had a unique opportunity to carry out a much more fundamental change in 1945. Working-class people were weary of the way they had to live. They saw the possibility of change and wanted to get it. But essentially their involvement remained limited to voting Labour and Labour had a different idea. Not fundamental change; not root and branch transformation of the economy; not a complete extension of democracy or a re-organising of civil society, but only partial measures. The class nature of society was left intact.
The ruling class was on the back foot. It was shocked at the size of the Labour landslide. They understood that the Labour reforms had to be tolerated if it prevented workers taking matters into their own hands and going much further. It was a situation forced on them and they could do nothing about it. They were forced to bide their time. And they waited.
The film jumps from 1951, when Labour lost to the Conservatives and was out of government until 1964, to Thatcher’s triumph in 1979. The film then shows the Thatcherite counter-reforms: the privatisations, the defeat of the miners, the promotion of ‘individualism’, of the idea that there is no such thing as society.
This jump is clearly imposed on Ken Loach by the time constraints but it can create an impression that everything was good until we got Thatcher. Of course, we had Harold Wilson (1964 -70 and 1974 – 76) and then James Callaghan (1976 – 79) and his chancellor Denis Healey and their capitulation to the IMF. Confronted with the economic crisis of the mid-1970s, Labour began to cut back public spending and reduced wages, provoking the ‘winter of discontent’, widespread strike action against the Labour government policies.
Labour’s mythical bird
The Labour programme implemented between 1945 – 51 was an attempt to create a ‘better’ capitalism that looked after those at the bottom. But we can look back and see that the ‘mixed economy’ could never work in the interests of all. Capitalism exists to make a profit for the few, at the expense of the many. Today’s Labour leaders have learned nothing. Ed Miliband talks about a ‘more responsible, more decent more humane’ capitalism. But as Dr Julian Tudor, who worked as a general practitioner in Wales, says in the film, “Caring capitalism is like the Arabian phoenix. Everyone’s heard about it but no-one’s ever seen it.”
We should not be looking to make a better, more humane, or any sort of capitalism but rather to sweep it away for ever and to create a new society based on the democratic collective ownership of the wealth in society, its resources and the means of production.
There is a danger that the film could be viewed as nostalgia, as somehow looking back to a golden age that we should try to re-create. That would be a huge mistake. The film does not uncritically praise the 1945 Labour government. It points to the huge reforms, which had such a massive impact on working-class lives at the time and in the generations since. But it also indicates the flaw in those reforms and the way they were implemented. In pointing to Thatcherism it shows the inevitable consequences of that flaw. Today, we see those consequences in even starker relief.
It is not possible to create islands of socialist industries in a capitalist sea, any more than it is possible to build socialism in a single country. We need a fundamental breach with capitalism.
Be inspired but learn the lessons
Socialists should engage with the film. It is a fantastic introduction for the debate we need to have about the sort of society we want to create. What are the lessons we can learn? How would we do things differently? Is it possible, as I would argue, for the working class to act for itself to change things, completely democratising the economy though collective ownership?
I encourage Left Unity groups to organise a [licensed] screening of the film, or to buy a copy of the DVD to watch together, with a discussion to follow. The film is a tremendous way to introduce a debate on the need and possibility of socialist change.
The film is a wonderful song of praise, not to the 1945 Labour government, but to the working-class spirit for change, for bettering their lives through collective activity and collective ownership. It is the spirit that should inspire us.
To order the DVD or organise a screening, contact Dogwoof distributors