20 years after The Full Monty

The Full Monty starts with extracts from an old film, showing prosperous Sheffield, a “city on the move” in the early seventies. Thanks to the marvellous steel industry, it tells us, Sheffield is leading the world. People are shown splashing in pools (in the North of England !), enjoying the ‘soccer’, and generally living it up, fat on the bounty of industry.

TheFullMonty.UKtheatricalposter.jpgThen we fast forward 25 years to the start of the film. The steel mills are closed down and two of the steel workers are trying to liberate a couple of girders from the disused site to raise the maintenance payment one owes his ex.

It was 1997 when the movie came out. Nobody expected the little film about six unemployed men who form a striptease act to do well but it was an instant critical and commercial success, grossing more than £250 million at the box office, the UK record at the timeEarlier that same year, Tony Blair and the so-called ‘New’ Labour Party were elected in an historic, landslide victory after 18 years in opposition.

As The Full Monty shows,  the promise of the early seventies had been crushed under Thatcher. Places like Sheffield were blighted by unemployment, homelessness and poverty. Blair’s slim manifesto promised smaller class sizes for kids, reduced NHS waiting lists and fewer young people on the dole (some to be fast-tracked to prison!) and fiscal conservatism. It captured the imagination of a public sick of Tory scandals and economic incompetence and Labour rode to victory on a wave of unprecedented populism. The Full Monty seemed to embody the optimism and spirit of the nation at the time.

For a while, Labour seemed to deliver on that promise. Life in the UK genuinely got better on a number of social measures. Homelessness went down. The education system was invigorated. Britannia became cool again. But there was a devil in the detail. That ‘fiscal conservatism’ was neoliberalism, an economic ideology based on stealing from the poor to give to the rich.

10 years later, Blair stepped down from the leadership, his own reputation forever stained by taking the country to war with Iraq, and the party’s reputation also tarnished. The next year, a banking crisis triggered a global financial crisis, and little was done to protect ordinary workers, while the banks were bailed out. Come the election in 2010, voters didn’t want any of the options: the parliament was hung for the first time since 1974. David Cameron and the Tories, who had promised compassionate conservatism, formed government with the Liberal Democrats, who had promised to keep uni fees low. Both promises were swiftly broken. Seven years later, so is much of Britain.

The Tories (enabled at first by the LibDems) used the Global Financial Crisis as an excuse to slash government spending and privatise public assets, while doing nothing to constrain the banks that caused the crisis. They took wheelchairs from disabled kids, forced dying people to take fit for work assessments, closed parenting support centres and libraries. Inequality soared, and they blamed migrants and Muslims for everything. In 2017, 20 years after The Full Monty came out, the towns in the North are once again blighted with homelessness, unemployment, and poverty. Now there’s a vicious racism dividing the communities, too.

Tower blocks…the housing of the future in the 1970s, death traps in 2017.

In the old film at the start of The Full Monty, they tell us that Sheffield is at the forefront of town planning. The Victorian slums had been torn down, they say, replaced with the future of housing—tower blocks. Tower blocks not unlike Grenfell Tower, which was built in 1974. Forty years that tower stood, once upon a time a symbol of prosperity and progress. Now its shell stands: a blight on the landscape, a testament to the price of greed, a monument to the failures of neoliberalism. Nearly 100 people dead, burned alive, or perhaps first poisoned by the cyanide gas released from the insulation on the sub-standard cladding, because a government of landlords couldn’t bring themselves to make it a requirement to make housing safe to live in. Reports say that the flame-retardant cladding that should have been used cost just £5,000 more than the one that caught the whole building alight in less than 8 minutes.

The promise of capitalism is prosperity. In the 1990s we were mourning the lost potential of the 70s. In 2017 we look back at the promise of 1997 and once again have to wonder how prosperity was squandered. Britain is one of the richest economies in the world, but children suffer from diseases of malnutrition and people who work full-time can’t make ends meet and have to rely on sate wage supplements or foodbanks.

One of the most damning statistics about the Tories recent performance is that real wages are at 2007 levels: wages have not increased in value in 10 years. In just 7 years of government, they have cost British workers 10 years of wage growth.

The Full Monty’s appeal is in a group of battlers triumphing over adversity. All of the characters are flawed and each wrestle their own demons, but by banding together they find a way not only to survive, but to bring hope back into their lives. As a narrative, it’s in stark contrast to the superhero franchises that have dominated our screens. There’s no mysterious force that grants the characters supernatural abilities. There’s certainly no altruistic billionaire saving the world in his spare time. Just ordinary folk, working together to help each other through the tough times.

But I think we all know that Gary and co did not live happily ever after. The few grand they raised from stripping wouldn’t have lasted long. The plucky resilience of battlers can only get us so far. We need to demand that governments deliver to us the promises of capitalism, refuse to accept the argument that there is not enough to go around, not subsidise champagne for politicians who refuse school meals for children.

There’s not much to be optimistic about at the moment but there are people out there who are fighting for the many, not the few. Maybe if we seek them out, and support them, in another 20 years things will look better.