In case you haven’t heard about it, it’s a celebration of the achievements of the 1945 Labour government, done as a series of interviews with people who had seen the pre-war world and knew what the alternative would be. It has taken me a couple of weeks to absorb its message.
This was a very different Labour government than those we have seen in recent times. In six dizzying, triumphant years the Labour Party laid the foundations of the welfare state.
It nationalised the coal mining and the steel industries. It created the National Health Service and British Rail. It began the process of decolonisation. It oversaw the return to full employment – finding jobs for all those demobbed soldiers – while rebuilding and improving our national infrastructure, building tens of thousands of council homes, and reconstructing whole cities and whole industries in the process.
Talk about austerity. This was a nation completely exhausted by war. It was broke. It was in pieces. And yet we managed to achieve all this, by sheer will and determination, in the spirit of hope, that we could build a better world than the one that had existed before.
That was the world that I grew up in. It was an optimistic world. It was a world in which we truly believed that each new generation would be better off – more secure, better educated, in better health – than the one before.
This was what was known as the post-war consensus. So all-pervasive was it that even Tory governments participated. In those days governments vied with each other, not about how much to cut our public services, as they do today, but over how many houses they had built, about how many jobs they had created, about how much they had spent on improving the quality of life for all sectors of the population.
All of this was done by government intervention, not by private industry. The glorification of the market began in 1979, with Thatcher.
It was Thatcher who sold off our nationalised industries, who attacked the trade unions, who deregulated the finance industry, who privatised our utilities, who sold off our housing stock. After that successive governments have vied with each other over who was more ruthlessly neo-liberal than the next. As Peter Mandelson said in 2002, “We are all Thatcherites now.”
And now look. The post-war consensus is broken, and private enterprise rules. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Our bills are going up while our wages are going down. State funding is no longer used to build houses, or to improve the quality of life for the population, but to bail out the banks and make sure that bankers keep their bonuses. Even the NHS is being made subject to “marketisation”, which is a euphemism for privatisation: people’s health being thrown out onto the overblown lottery that is the world Capitalist system.
Thatcherites often characterise the welfare state as “The Nanny State.” And why not? Better that than the vampire state we have created to take its place.
The Spirit of ’45 has been criticised for being a propaganda film, for glorifying the 1945 Labour government, while demonising Thatcher. And it’s true: it leaps boldly from 1945 to 1979 as if there was nothing in between.
But this makes sense to me. These were two markers on the page of history: two turning points that defined what went before, and what happened after.
The world after 1945 was a better world than the one that went before. The world after 1979 started to get worse again.
I know which of the two I prefer.
The Spirit of ’45 links: