Matt and I went to see Ken Loach’s documentary The Spirit of ’45 this evening. It is a series of excerpts from interviews with activists and trade unionists on different themes cut with photographs and footage of the post-war years of social democracy until Thatcher ended it. What I found convincing were the grievances of the interviewees, many of whom had watched loved ones die meaninglessly due to reckless profiteering in the mines or lack of adequate housing. Others had had brutal encounters with the police, who I thought were represented with restraint here but nevertheless as the enforcers of the rich and powerful that they have been and sometimes still are. Julian Tudor Hart, the GP who revolutionised blood pressure management (and on whose book I founded my PhD) was utterly convincing – it was great to see him. I wonder if David Widgery, the East End GP who wrote the very good memoir Some Lives would have been in it had he still been alive. I can probably tolerate John Rees if he sticks to the point – and he was well-edited here – didn’t seem at all malevolent.
Everybody in the film was white – reminding me of trade union support for the colour bar in the ’60s – and largely male. They were also practically all retired, but Loach successfully made a virtue of the fact that retired people carry the torch – they have stories to tell of how things used to be in the bad old days before the NHS. But it’s a real shame that Loach is not a reflective man because this film misses an opportunity. Others have observed with incredulity his omission to tackle the gap between the triumph of nationalisation and the rise of neo-Liberalism represented by Thatcher. That gap is precisely what the labour movement needs to get to grips with, because that is where the ground was lost. Loach prefers to point the finger at Thatcher. It is well known that Thatcher was voted in by disaffected Labour voters.
Personally it isn’t inspiration I lack – I’m entirely convinced by socialism. The film went too little into means or reasons. And it passed over how repellent the organisations in the backgrounds of some of the interviewees are. John Rees and the Socialist Workers Party, for example, and Ken Loach’s own anti-Jewish proclivities so common on the far left. These people don’t want me on their side, and I don’t trust them as far as I can throw them. Nor do I trust these workers of the far left’s imagination – they are as deluded and venal as anybody else, and I dislike seeing workers glorified. If, as one of the interviewees suggested, older people were to begin to explain what happened during the period of nationalisation after World War 2 ended, most would probably say that nationalisation was ultimately stymied by the trades unions of the time. I’ve read enough of Kynaston’s Austerity Britain to grasp that the prospect of nationalism divided the workers – most notably the mine workers – before it was established, and once in place many observed new inefficiences. As Rees says, nationalisation simply replaced a private elite with a state one. Clearly socialism could not have got off the ground in the UK without the successive devastations of depression and war. So the sense of self-righteousness, natural goodness and entitlement of the masses inculcated by parts of the left can only erode our moral fibre, and is certainly no defence against a political right which would pit migrant workers against established ones, men against women, dark skinned against light skinned. Flattering the masses is silly.
But nobody else made a film about this, and a film about this is necessary to keep the memory alive not so much of socialism, but of what socialism hopes to keep at bay. Does this mean that Loach is the best we have? If so the organised socialist left is destined to remain out in the cold for a good deal longer. And for all Loach’s anti-Labour message, they are the people I see in my own borough, quietly and unglamorously getting on with what they can, for their communities, far from Miliband etc. Meanwhile the further left eddies.