I watched the Spirit of ’45 today, the new Ken Loach documentary about the post-war rise of the Labour movement.
I learned about the war in school but they never told me about what happened afterwards. How after the war the people of Britain said “Enough.” The men who’d fought against fascism and the women who kept the country running in their absence refused to go back to the wrenching poverty of the thirties, the crushing lack of opportunity. The people who lived through that time remember: four kids to a bed crawling with vermin, space made when two of the children die. Bread and dripping a luxury, because you needed beef to make dripping. Men working themselves to death rather than miss a shift and get taken off the roster. As one man says, Britain had the greatest Empire in history, and the worst slums in Europe. Everything was run for the benefit of the few.
The soldiers saw the divide: they fought the war, while the officers stayed safe behind the lines. The ones that came home had the vision: we ran the war, we can run the peace.
They laid out their plans in a manifesto with a vision never seen in today’s tawdry politics of short-termism, and the people voted en masse. The Labour movement won the post war election on a landslide. The newly elected government took the industries that were essential for infrastructure and made them publicly owned: transport, energy, health. Profit was no longer the priority. Mines could be made safer. Health care could be delivered to all who needed it, not just the few who could afford it. They build housing, quality housing. That’s what everyone deserves, the Housing Minister declared.
The mistake they made, Ken Loach suggests, was putting the old bosses in charge of the new system. Men known to the workers as heartless tyrants. So the reforms didn’t go as far as they could have, had they been led by men (or women) with vision. The workers did not really take control. But things did get better. Until Thatcher came along, and Reagan, and greed became good. The Spirit of 1945 was gone by 1985.
And now the reforms of the post-war Labour movement have almost entirely undone. The publicly owned infrastructure has almost all been sold: most recently what was left of the Royal Mail was sold, for half its estimated value. The NHS is limping along, horribly crippled. The government which passed a law so it is no longer required to provide universal health care is now selling all the profitable bits to private companies. Almost 6,000 nurses have lost their jobs and hospitals and maternity wards have been closed. More than 500,000 people are affected by a cruel policy that charges a fee to public housing tenants who have a spare room. A French IT company called ATOS decides whether disabled and terminally-ill people can have benefits or not: thousands of people have died within days of being decreed ‘fit for work’. The demand on Food Banks is skyrocketing but the Prime Minister sits at a golden throne, bloated from a banquet, and preaches about the need for austerity. They’ve almost got what they wanted: the destruction of the welfare state.
The modern Labour Party is partly to blame. The movement has been co-opted by the privileged, educated at the same hoary old institutions as their Tory peers, promoting the same tired free market hegemony. Why? Because it works for them, this parliament of millionaires, with subsidised meals and expense accounts paying for second homes. The rich get richer under this system. Corporate profits have soared: they’re not paying taxes and wages have stagnated. We drift along, complicit, while the brunt of the suffering is borne by the most vulnerable, the most disenfranchised. Maybe in our darkest hours we whisper consolingly to ourselves that things aren’t so bad. In doing so, we allow them to turn the screws tighter.
Here is Australia, things aren’t so bad – yet. There’s much that can be improved, sure, but our newly elected government has the Tory playbook out, calling for austerity. They’re starting to attack welfare for the disabled. They want to cut the minimum wage. We must resist. We cannot get richer by making the poor poorer.
I hear people complain about our education system, still turning out people who can’t read and add as well as we think they should. They complain about the health system too: too slow, too expensive, too bureaucratic. All valid criticisms. But we must not believe the lie that the cure for these failings is to be found in the free market. All the private sector is interested in is profit. Not your health, nor that of your children. Not your safety. Not the safety of workers. Not even the quality of the product. Voting for private sector control is voting to give up caring for anything but profit. As Loach reminds us, it was the private sector that was in charge in the thirties. They delivered appalling poverty and hardship for the many, and gilded palaces for the few. Why hand everything back?
Australia, the US and the UK have been at war for over a decade…wars far away, against people we little understand or empathise with. At home, the language of war is deployed daily: against drugs, against obesity, against bikers travelling in threes. All these wars are used to excuse the slow theft of our rights and our dignity. We are sleepwalking our way into a past our grandfathers fought to leave behind. Will it take a war at home to wake us from our slumber? A disaster of epic proportions? More suffering? What will it take to rouse the Spirit of 45 in us?