Mark Perryman argues the need to revisit and reclaim Labour ’45
There is an astonishing moment during Ken Loach’s warmly-received documentary The Spirit of ’45. Winston Churchill is addressing a public rally during the 1945 General Election campaign and he is drowned out by the near universal booing. Not far left adventurists, these were ordinary working class men and women who in Winston saw a great wartime premier trying to turn the socio-economic clock back to the way things were the instant the peace treaties were signed.
There is not much mistaking 1939-45 as an era when anti-fascism fused with a popular internationalism. Mosley and his British Union of Fascists in the 1930s let us never forget enjoyed the “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” support of Viscount Rothermere’s Daily Mail and widespread other establishment endorsements too, including many suspect the newly crowned King Edward VIII. To suggest Mosley was on the verge of state power is of course bordering on the fantastical but fellow-travelling with the Nazis and appeasement certainly were widespread on the Tory Right and beyond. At the same time an undiluted anti-semitism was used to stoke up working class support in areas such as London’s East End by exploiting genuine grievances with false and hateful solutions.
This was an era that Eric Hobsbawm famously described as The Age of Extremes. Fascism was confronted by a mass communist party with a genuine working-class base combined with significant intellectual and cultural influence. But on their own, as they would painfully learn during the doomed class-against-class period, even the most militant and heroic of Communists would have been no match for Mosley. Rather they sought the broadest possible opposition both against the Blackshirts and for Republican Spain. A popular anti-fascism which while not enough to decisively shape World War Two for either the combatants and the home front was nevertheless a vital feature throughout. Most important of all was the increasingly evident role of the Red Army on the Eastern Front, the legend that Stalingrad, Kursk and other battles would become, the Atlantic Convoys criss-crossing the North Seas loaded with vital supplies. Campaigning for the second front to be opened to relieve the pressure on the Soviet Union and destroy Hitler via a pincer movement placed the Communists at the core of a sentiment that was a near-universal solidarity. Nowadays we are almost immune to the casual dismissal of the Red Army’s role in the defeat of Nazism, few in ’45 would make that mistake including George VI who replaced as King his younger brother following abdication. On his orders a sword, The Sword of Stalingrad, was presented to Stalin engraved “To the steel hearted citizens of Stalingrad, a gift from King George VI as a token of the homage of the British people.” Was our Royal Family a secret enclave of reds under the regal beds? Hardly, yet the act was indicative of a huge shift in British public opinion that Labour in ’45 was best-placed to take advantage of following VE day in May and the July General Election.
But Labour was bold too, not content to simply campaign on the basis of its outstanding role in the wartime coalition government, nor a sour-faced ‘we told you so’ against the 1930s appearers and apologists still represented in the Tories’ ranks. Win the Peace was the connect to a visionary future Labour made. Rehousing, nationalising the railways, mines and public utilities, comprehensive education, establishing a National Health Service, creating a post-war Welfare State. Today those policies are largely outside of the political mainstream, with the exception of Jeremy Corbyn who in Labour’s Leadership Campaign would we identify with this kind of legacy? Yet the two principle architects of Labour’s ’45 plan were Liberals, Keynes and Beveridge, not socialists. The genius of Attlee, Bevan and others was to be part of a process that shaped a majoritarian consensus around a politics which changed the face of Britain for the benefit of the many, not the few and decisively affected the balance of class privilege. The tragedy was that this became a conservative defence of the consensus which mistook the virtues of defending what we had for the necessities to deepen and extend that shift as a permanent evolution. It was the emerging inadequacies that Thatcher by the mid 1970s was able to exploit and in the end with new Labour’s muted assistance break up almost all that remained of the post-war consensus by the end of the twentieth century with nothing close to becoming any better put in its place.
Look back in hope? Bevan’s three-line philosophy for Labour in ’45, “We have been the dreamers. We have been the sufferers. And now we are the builders” helped to inspire and create most of what was good about post-war Britain, an achievement that should give us every cause both to celebrate and to oppose the enduring ideological assault under the guise of the necessities of austerity. There is no alternative? More than any other single individual in British politics Bevan in ’45 helped proved absolutely the case, there was and is.
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