March 19th, 2013

Published on Socialist Unity, by John Wight, March 16, 2013  (with Filmtrailer, 1.51 min).

The achievements of the 1945 postwar Labour government, explored and depicted in Ken Loach’s documentary, The Spirit of 45, should be part of the school curriculum in every generation as a model of what a government committed to meeting the needs of the majority of its citizens can be.  

These achievements are all the more impressive considering the state of the British economy in 1945, after six years of war had decimated Europe, laid waste to most of its major towns and cities, destroyed its industrial capacity, and smashed its infrastructure.

The exigencies of the war had left Britain with a national debt of 225% of GDP, an unsustainable empire, and had exhausted its gold and dollar reserves. These facts alone serve to put the hysteria proffered by today’s austerity hawks over a national debt of 75% of GDP in 2010 into its proper perspective.

Historical parallels and difference between then and now are impossible to ignore while watching the film. One of the most striking is the pale imitation of today’s Labour Party to the one led and driven by political giants and visionaries such as Clement Attlee, Stafford Cripps, Hugh Dalton, and Nye Bevan. These men, responding to the hopes and needs of a British working class that had shed its blood to defeat fascism, were determined that Britain would never return to the crippling inequality, poverty, and social and economic injustice of the 1930s. The extent of this poverty is movingly depicted with the use of rare archive footage and the moving testimony of those who experienced it.

A particularly heartrending account from one of the narrators describes how as a boy he helped bury two of his younger siblings. He recalled how he rode in the funeral carriage to the cemetery with their coffins resting over his legs and how they were buried in a communal grave with other children, all of whom had died as a result of the crippling poverty and disease which blighted the working class in Britain during the 1930s.

With the end of the war a wave of euphoria at the defeat of fascism combined in Britain with the resolute determination that the victory would extend to the postwar settlement. Given the inspirational role played by Churchill leading the country during the war, he and the Tories were unsurprisingly sanguine when it came to the general election that immediately followed. The Tory election slogan was ‘Vote National – Help Him Finish The Job’, referring to Churchill with the objective of associating his role in leading the country during the war with the need for continuity when it came to the postwar reconstruction. There was also a strong element of entitlement, again due to Churchill’s role in leading the country during the dark days of the Blitz, after France fell and before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and the United States had yet to enter the war, when Britain stood alone against the might of the Third Reich.

But leading figures within the Labour Party had also played a key, if less high profile, role in the war effort. If not for Labour the disastrous policy of appeasement followed by Neville Chamberlain’s government, which led to its tepid and incompetence handling of the early stages of the war when it became unavoidable, would not have been ended as swiftly and conclusively as it was in 1940, when Chamberlain was replaced by Churchill and a coalition government was formed to fight the war.

I explored Labour’s role in ending appeasement in a previous article, How Labour Turned the Tide//

… I have a couple of criticisms of the film. The main one is the imbalance between the moral and economic case it makes in favour of the postwar reforms. More of the latter I feel would have helped to refute the logic of austerity which currently holds sway among the political class.

The participation of various left wing commentators and figures as talking heads throughout by and large works well.  Counterfire’s John Rees is one who features prominently. In general he is good, though his assertion towards the end that a crucial weakness of the postwar Labour government’s radical reforms was that it merely replaced a ‘corporate bureaucracy with a state bureaucracy’ is not one I can agree with. Given the centrality of electoral politics to British society, both then and now, the question is not the principle of bureaucracy; the question is whose bureaucracy? In whose interests is it operating? He also suggests that workers’ committees would have made the nationalised industries and utilities stronger and more secure. This struck me as veering towards ultra leftism and out of sync with British society and working class consciousness during the period depicted. There was no upsurge in revolutionary consciousness in Britain after the Second World War. There was instead a consensus around the need and desire and possibility for radical reform, expressed through the ballot box with the election of a reforming Labour government.

Another talking head is Raphie De Santos. De Santos has a background in banking and is a financial analyst, endowing him with expertise when it comes to  the global banking sector and financial markets. He comes across well in the film and makes some useful points. Also participating and making good contributions are Tony Mulhearn, Alan Thornett, and Alex Gordon of the RMT.

Overall, Ken Loach’s The Spirit of 45 provides a timely reminder of a period in history when the needs and hopes of the British working class were the guiding light of the government’s policy, resulting in the radical transformation of society and an economic recovery the like of which is desperately needed today.
(full text and many comments).

Links related to this article:

Timeline Industry;

Aneurin Bevan;

Council homes: the rise, the collapse and the fall, on The Guardian, by Holly Bentley, August 13, 2008;

Gen 75 Committee;

Nuclear weapons and the United Kingdom;

Other economic links:

Hair of the Dog that Bit Us: Capital Requirements Provide Ethical Cover for Abuse of the Safety Net, on naked capitalism, by Edward Kane, Professor of Finance at Boston College and founding member of the hadow Financial Regulatory Committee, MARCH 18, 2013: … regulators define a financial institution’s capital as the difference between the value of its asset and liability positions …;

Will Cyprus Become Creditanstalt 2.0? on naked capitalism, by Yves Smith, March 18, 2013: … the cheery view that Europe had moves past its crisis now looks to have been a tad premature …;

Cyprus: The Next Blunder,  on naked capitalism, by Yves Smith, March 18, 2013: … our post today on Cyprus provides some broad background, including the political dynamics and the not-terribly-defensible reasons the Eurozone went that route, and a short discussion of the large risk that this inept move precipitates a wider crisis …;

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