“I AM NOT PREPARED to associate myself with a policy where well-to-do people can afford to build luxury homes and poor people go without homes!”
The old newsreel shows Aneurin Bevan in full flight: speaking as British Labour ministers were wont to speak during the crucial, but all-too-brief, period of Labour rule between 1945 and 1951.
It began with the landslide socialist victory of 5 July 1945.
Labour’s share of the popular vote was 49.7 percent (a remarkable result in what was still a three party system). When the counting ended Labour held 61.7 percent of the seats in the House of Commons.
On the night of their historic victory, thousands of working-class Labour voters gathered outside the party’s Transport House headquarters and sang, over and over again, William Blake’s great spiritual call-to-arms – “Jerusalem”.
I shall not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Til we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
It was a pivotal historical moment in British history, and it has contributed both the title and the subject matter for “The Spirit of 45”, a documentary released in the UK today (15 March) by the celebrated left-wing English filmmaker, Ken Loach.
A trailer for the documentary can be found here.
Thank God for people like Ken Loach! Because without them so many of the memories, hopes and dreams of a generation which is rapidly passing away would be lost forever.
Thank Loach, too, for bringing together in one documentary so much superb archival material. The images of a people taking charge of their destiny are as precious as the memories they evoke.
At a time when our own Labour Party (whose record of radical reform was already ten years old in 1945) seems utterly incapable of formulating anything remotely resembling the transformative programme of Clement Attlee’s 1945-51 government, it is quite inspiring to hear the unequivocal declarations of Nye Bevan, and to see the UK miners’ union members marching shoulder-to-shoulder with the managers of the newly nationalised pits.
Loach does not, however, permit his audience to revel in wistful political nostalgia for very long. “The Spirit of 45” – so triumphant in the six years following the end of World War II – was reduced to a bitter memory during the Thatcher Years (1979-1991). The contrast Loach draws between the collective spirit of 1945 and the brutal individualism so assiduously fostered by the “Iron Lady’s” neoliberal mentors is as important to draw as it is agonising to watch.
In his interview with the Guardian, Loach recalls how difficult it was to get anything remotely resembling an alternative version of events onto the screens of Thatcherite Britain. The blatant censorship of dissenting voices (including his own) in the 1980s should alert us to the dangerously totalitarian trajectory that remains embedded in neoliberal thought.
Comparing the joy, the exhilaration and the powerful sense of rapidly expanding social horizons ushered in by the Attlee Government in 1945, with the vicious selfishness held up as the new normal by Mrs “There’s no such thing as society” Thatcher, one cannot help being seized by the sheer magnitude of the social transformation which neoliberalism has wrought – as great in its own way as the transformation overseen thirty-five years earlier by Labour’s socialists.
The Pagani School of Labour theory rejects out-of-hand any possibility of a return to the spirit of 1945 (or, in New Zealand’s case, of 1935 and 1938) and urges the party’s policy-makers to embrace Tony Blair’s vision of “New” or “Modern” Labour.
Unfortunately, the differences between the neoliberal policies of the Right and the neoliberal-lite policies of Modern Labour are differences of degree not kind. Rather than its nemesis, Blairism turned out to be Thatcherism’s bastard child.
More than anything else, it is the Shearer-led Labour Party’s inarticulateness; its singular incapacity to think outside the neoliberal box; that illustrates how very far it has strayed from the impulse to improve and empower the lives of ordinary people which Loach’s latest documentary so movingly elucidates.
The chances of anyone singing “Jerusalem” outside the New Zealand Labour Party’s Wellington headquarters in 2014 are, for the moment, depressingly slim.