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, Ernest Bevin 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.
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 wartime coalition government was formed.
I explored Labour’s role in ending appeasement in a previous article, ‘How Labour Turned the Tide’.
By war’s end thousands of soldiers, seamen, air force personnel, and workers at home were aware of the role of planning and organization in securing a victorious outcome, and the crucial role played by Labour ministers within that. Among the archive footage which runs throughout the film, one of the most uplifting is the scene of Churchill addressing and open air election rally in 1945 and being roundly booed by the crowd, which breaks into a chant of ‘We want Labour! We want Labour!’
It is hard to escape the conclusion that today’s Labour Party could only dream of being so popular and eagerly supported by the electorate.
The 1945 general election resulted in a Labour majority of 146 seats. It was a resounding endorsement of a manifesto based on the ‘Five Giant Evils’ in society of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease that had been identified in the Beveridge Report of 1942, commissioned by Labour in 1941. Even so, after the victory came the monumental challenge of turning the manifesto into reality given the parlous state of the nation’s economy and finances.
It would not have been possible without a huge loan from the United States.
The irony here should not be lost. Essentially the United States government funded the implementation of socialist reforms which transformed British society out of all recognition to the one it had been before the war. For the first time in its social history the nation’s wealth, resources, and surplus was focused on prioritising the needs of the people over those of the rich and privileged. But the US had selfish and strategic reasons for granting the Attlee government a substantial loan to fund the nation’s postwar reconstruction. The spectre of the Soviet Union loomed large over postwar Europe, with communism enjoying an upsurge in popularity due to the role of the Red Army in smashing fascism. Communist partisans and resistance movements throughout occupied Europe had also played a significant part in the war, and the last thing the Truman administration could countenance was the possibility of an upsurge in pro-Soviet sentiment leading to a communist Europe. Consequently, massive economic aid with the aim of rebuilding Western Europe was a key plank of Washington’s strategy to win the peace. It was also designed to rebuild European markets to receive US exports.
However, the most crucial point with regard to the US loan responsible for funding Britain’s postwar reconstruction should not be missed in light of current events. Borrowing to invest in order to create demand is the way to drag any economy out of recession and return it to growth.
The terms attached to the loan by the US were not overly-kind. An amount of $3.75 billion, to be paid over fifty years at an annual interest rate of 2 percent, increased to $4.4 billion after factoring in the setting aside of $650 million owed to the US from the Lend-Lease Agreement which had allowed Britain to fight the war. In return Washington received Britain’s participation and support for the Bretton Woods Agreement, which in 1944 redrew the global economic map in favour of the US economy with the implementation of free trade and the end of currency exchange controls.
Over the next few years, Labour completed the wholesale nationalisation of industry and public utilities, a national programme of house building, which saw a million new homes built between 1945 and 1951, and the creation of the welfare state. Archive footage of then Housing Minister, Nye Bevan, stating the case for homes for the working class emphasises the socialist principles which ran through his veins.
Bevan was also the Minister for Health in Attlee’s government, and despite determined opposition from the British Medical Association, pushed through the imposition of the National Health Service in 1948. It was the crowning achievement of Labour’s historical role as a party of the working class. Millions of men and women who’d known only lives blighted shortened by disease, illness, and medical conditions that went untreated or only partially treated, were now fully and comprehensively covered. Dental care, eye care, maternity care – every aspect of the nation’s health was covered by right and treated free at the point of need. National Insurance, set up to fund the NHS, was a shining example of socialism in action.
All of this is excellently portrayed in the film utilising a combination of archive footage and personal testimony.
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.