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March 13, 2013

The year Britain went socialist

Ken Loach has a new film coming out this week – The Spirit of ’45 – which he seems to have made  out of concern that the enormous social gains from that era are about to be crushed by the modern day health and welfare reforms. The documentary is a mix of film archive spliced with interviews from a few people with memories of how things were back then. The themes of citizenship and common good run throughout the film, themes that are so markedly absent in today’s world.


Yvonne Roberts, The Observer,

Director Ken Loach’s new film revisits the year that Britons turned to socialism – and ushered in the NHS, public ownership and the concept of public (not private) good. We trace the spirit of ’45 and speak to some who remember the dawn of a new life.

Ray Davies, robust, articulate and dignified, aged 83, veteran campaigner, a Labour councillor in Caerphilly for 50 years, sits in a Spanish civil war beret and recalls the time, in 1945, when he was 15 and had already worked two years underground in Welsh mines.

“In those days, it wasn’t safety that came first, it was coal,” he says. “We were in the pit and the message came down – ‘Labour’s won by a landslide!’ Tough, hard miners had tears streaking down their faces, black with dust. They said, ‘Ray, this is what we’ve dreamed about all our lives. Public control of the railways and mines and banks, jobs and housing. We are going to have a health service!’ ” Ray’s voice still resonates with the thrill of it all. “We owed trillions to the Americans at the end of the war, we had nothing, but we said, ‘Knickers to the debt. We are going to put this country back on its feet.’ And we did! The average life expectancy of a miner was 42 years. Then that began to creep up. It was wonderful to see how things improved for the ordinary man and woman.”

Ray Davies is one of a number of octogenarian “stars” of The Spirit of ’45, an uplifting documentary by the film-maker and master chronicler of ordinary lives, Ken Loach. It celebrates 1945, a pivotal year, and its brief aftermath, during which socialism was proudly endorsed and openly promoted by a Labour leader, Clement Attlee. On the stump, Winston Churchill had failed to convince when he attempted to link socialism and “the gestapo”. Booed and heckled, he was then trounced by the electorate.

Labour’s 1945 general election manifesto included clause IV, subsequently erased by Tony Blair, which promised “to secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry… upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange…” The manifesto also pledged a massive and speedy housing programme so that “every family has a good standard of accommodation”. The country was broke, battered, and in parts physically flattened, but certainly it was no longer bowed.

For The Spirit of ’45, Loach has mined British regional and national archives and found deeply moving film footage and sound recordings that powerfully illustrate a country determined to build a very different community out of the rubble of war and create a new social fabric. “We had won the war together,” Loach says. “Together we could win the peace. If we could collectively plan to wage military campaigns, could we not plan to build houses, create a health service and make goods needed for reconstruction? The spirit of the age was to be our brother’s and our sister’s keeper.”

Years of poverty and unemployment after the first world war had been followed by six years battling fascism and experiencing huge personal loss in the second. In one piece of archive footage in Loach’s film, a woman says, after her house has been destroyed by a German bomb: “But I only cleaned my windows yesterday.” Peace gave birth to a country with different expectations and priorities. Seventy per cent of the population considered itself working-class and it now voiced modest aspirations with hugely radical potential.

The historian David Kynaston recalls the scale of the change in his book Austerity Britain, which covers the same period as Loach’s documentary. The book describes a “blazered, straw-hatted 14-year-old public schoolboy, John Rae” (later headmaster of Westminster School), waiting on Bishop’s Stortford station in July 1945 with his trunk. “My man,” he called to the porter. “No,” came the porter’s firm reply. “That sort of thing is all over now.”

The new prime minister, Clement Attlee, and the health and housing minister, Aneurin (Nye) Bevan, used the scale of the challenge of building a new Jerusalem and the necessity of centralised planning to justify a massive programme of nationalisation. Roads, rail, steel, docks, coal, utilities – all came into state ownership. Most triumphant and resilient of all was the birth of the National Health Service in 1948. “We realised that the only people who were going to help us were ourselves, the people,” says Ray Davies.

“One for all and all for one, homes for the many, not luxuries for the few, that’s what we wanted,” says 90-year-old Eileen Thompson, another of Loach’s interviewees. “People weren’t greedy. They just wanted a job and a peaceful home life.” She grew up in “poverty park” in the slums of Liverpool in the 1930s. “As a child,” she tells me, “my father took me to see the unemployment queues, a long, long line. He said, ‘Never let this happen again.’ ”

Loach says he was motivated to make the documentary because the achievements of the Attlee generation were at risk of being reduced to a footnote to Thatcherism. “People talk about Thatcherism all the time,” he says. “I felt it was important to record the memories of those almost written out of history who upheld the spirit of ’45. Today, the market penetrates everywhere. It’s time to put back on the agenda the importance of public ownership and public good, the value of working together collaboratively, not in competition.”

The American philosopher Michael Sandel, in the Reith Lectures in 2009, warned that the priorities of the shareholder and the “values” of the marketplace were brutally damaging the civic pulse. “A politics of the common good invites us to think of ourselves less as consumers and more as citizens,” he said. It is these themes of citizenship and the common good that run through The Spirit of ’45 like an electric charge, underlining the absence of these values from so much of public discussion and culture now.

June Hautot, 76, another of the film’s stars, still lives in the house in south London where her mother died when June was 11. Her father, a railway worker, had been wounded in the war but before the NHS was set up couldn’t afford to be properly treated, or to take time off work. June’s mother, in her 40s, developed breast cancer that spread to her spine. The family belonged to one of several thousand private insurance schemes that only partially met the cost of sickness.

“You had to pay the doctor five shillings before he’d even put his foot over the threshold,” June recalls. “My older sister and I used to care for my mother but then the NHS arrived, overnight, and we didn’t have to do it any more. A district nurse arrived. It was absolutely wonderful.” In 2012, Hautot famously confronted the then health secretary Andrew Lansley in Downing Street, shouting “Shame!” and accusing him of privatising the NHS. “Tony Benn says ‘People change things not politics.’ I believe that,” she says. “Nobody is taking the NHS away from us. Nobody.”

Sam Watts, 88, was a rigger on the docks when he and his wife and two children were moved from the Liverpool slums to a council house in Bootle, in which – 65 years later – he still lives. “We couldn’t believe it,” he told me. “We had a kitchen and a bathroom and a backyard. Now they are all sold off or rented for £550 a month. Can you believe it?” His wife, Bridie, was diagnosed with TB aged 27. “They said it would take 12 months to build her up to have her lung removed and 12 months to recover. The NHS had just come in. Before that people died of TB. In Liverpool you’d see people sitting outside their houses. You knew they were going to die. They’d been told to take fresh air. Bridie lived another 50 years. She was never the same person but she lived, thanks to the NHS.”

GPs had been overwhelmingly against the NHS, and the British Medical Association warned that the socialist health secretary would become a “medical fuhrer”. Nye Bevan dealt with their opposition by allowing consultants to continue with their lucrative private practice and, as he put it, “stuffing their mouths with gold”. However, as the Loach documentary illustrates, some doctors were great enthusiasts of a universal service based on need not income.

Professor Harry Keen, 87, a diabetes specialist for 50 years, and founder of the NHS Support Federation, which aims to protect the founding values of the NHS, still holds a clinic once a week. He recalls a visit to a boy called Billy in his home in the summer of 1948, soon after qualifying. “I received two shillings and sixpence and said I would call back. When I returned the mother informed me that Billy was a lot better. But as we spoke I heard a loud hacking cough: ‘That’s not Billy, its Johnny his brother,’ the mother said. When I offered to take a look at Johnny, she said, ‘I’d rather you didn’t, we really can’t afford it.’ I told her that today was 5 July, the birth of the NHS. From then on, my services would be free. What a great day!”

By the time the Conservatives regained power with a small majority in 1951, after six years of a socialist Labour government, the welfare state had strong foundations and more than 40% of the country’s industrial capacity was nationalised. But as The Spirit of ’45 points out, there were inherent flaws. No workers’ representation, chronic lack of investment, little long-term planning and the appointment of senior management from the pre-nationalisation era who had little commitment to state-run industries. As one union activistin the film says: “What sort of nationalisation have we got when the same old gang is back in power?”

Having recorded the scale of the postwar generation’s commitment to the new Jerusalem, its origins, triumphs and its failings, Loach’s film then tackles the rapid dismantling of it with the arrival of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. She espoused a very different ideology based on small-government, low-tax, free-market, neo-liberal, anti-union, pro-privatisation, “no such thing as society” monetarism. That “light touch” on finance and business and her desire to “roll back the frontiers of the state” was little challenged by 13 years of Labour under Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. The documentary illustrates how under New Labour, individualism gnawed at the collectivist muscle, and the private sector moved deeper into the very last of the nationalised industries, the NHS. “Economics are the method,” Margaret Thatcher told an interviewer in 1981. “The object is to change the heart and soul.”

In 1984, she took on and defeated the National Union of Mineworkers. Shortly after, British Telecom, British Aerospace and British Gas were handed back to shareholders. Steel, water, Rolls-Royce and British Airways were all privatised. Millions of jobs disappeared in steel, coal and manufacturing. In the early 1980s, cleaning and catering in the NHS were contracted out; the market moved in to universal free health care.

Karen Reissmann of Unison, and a mental health nurse in Bolton, says: “We used to have two full-time cleaners in the morning on the ward and one part-time in the evening… After contracting out, we had half a cleaner in the morning and one covering 10 wards in the evening. That’s not good economics if it leads to the cost of MRSA.”

What the documentary doesn’t cover is the March 2012 Health and Social Care bill to reform the NHS, opposed by 25 out of 26 medical colleges. Last week the government published new regulations that, according to the Royal College of Physicians, “will have the effect of forcing through privatisation regardless of the will of the local people. Once this is triggered [the deadline is 31 March], it means private providers gain rights which make halting their encroachment financially – and thus politically – virtually impossible.”

“If they privatise the health service we will lose something beyond price,” Professor Keen tells me. “It’s not all about greed. Humans have a social sense too.”

James Meadway, senior economist at the thinktank the New Economics Foundation, points out in The Spirit of ’45 that the assumption that the private sector is more efficient is not proven. He tells me that the myths that a bloated public sector and excessive spending under a Labour government are the prime cause of current austerity also need to be strenuously challenged. Up to 2008, Meadway says, Labour spent less on the public sector as a proportion of GDP (39%) than Thatcher (41%) or Major (40%). He argues for an alternative narrative as bold as that which once cradled the spirit of 1945. “There are other scripts that can be written. Ones that put the importance of solidarity ahead of competition and the need to defend the common and the public from the incursion of the private. We need a credible alternative story to disintegrating Osbornomics. Or we can say goodbye to the welfare state.”

Dot Gibson of the National Pensioners Convention talks in the film of her optimism. “The older generation has an absolute duty to… start talking to young people about the vision of 1945,” she says. “How did we see it progressing? What does ‘from cradle to grave’ mean? Common ownership and sharing? We have a real chance to understand better what kind of life we want – and to start to rebuild.”

Loach says the left has always been fractured. “If you have a society where a large section believe they are not part of the political discourse, that is a situation for trouble. The Labour election of 1945 was a tremendous victory for democratic ownership of the economy. We need to remember and learn from the lessons.”

In the years immediately following the end of the second world war, the British public refused to return to the desperately unequal past. Loach’s film is mainly in black and white, except that the same images of exuberant street parties on VE Day that open the documentary are repeated at the end, in gloriously vivid Technicolor. Somehow what that captures superbly well and without sentimentality is that while the people had very little, they could celebrate that, in their grimmest times, their greatest asset had proven to be each other – and they had won.

The Spirit of ’45 opens in cinemas on 15 March. There will be a nationwide screening with a live Q&A with Ken Loach and special guests at 3pm on Sunday 17 March. See for more details and participating cinemas.