Of the twentieth century it’s often remarked that “the left won the culture war, the right won the economic war”. If nothing else, Ken Loach’s Spirit of 45, out in cinemas last week, is a useful reminder that this did not always seem like being a foregone conclusion.
A great deal has changed since then, of course, as the film expends little subtlety in telling us. And indeed many have wasted no time in dismissing Loach as nostalgic or simplistic, something he probably leaves himself open to with his use of sepia tone and eventual descent into agitprop (Ms Thatcher emerges from nowhere to shatter the reverie, encouraging the audience in my showing to audibly hiss!).
But past its casual bursts of pantomime, The Spirit of 45 is a beautiful and inspiring movie. It leaves you, as I suppose it intends to, with the question of what we can revive of that time – of, as the late Tony Judt might put it, “what is living and what is dead?” What can be resuscitated and how?
The first – and the most striking thing about that era – was the sheer scale of ambition of the Labour government. They faced circumstance which make today’s problems seem meagre by comparison: a country decimated by war, fiscal deficits of 21.5%, national debt at nearly 250% of GDP. And yet they embarked on a programme of wholesale transformation of the British economy and society – not because it was romantic, but because it was the right way to solve those problems.
In many ways an experiment, this boldness is a salutary reminder to those of us on the left who at times have had our horizons narrowed by the last thirty years of free-market triumphalism, or even the austerity of the past few. Too often we content ourselves to talk big but fiddle at the edges; a tweak and a nudge here, a tax incentive there. Ownership and control matter, as do institutions; public and private interest are not synonymous – the former should always be a buffer to the latter, not a mere facilitator.
Simple truths but ones too often forgotten. And relevant when we look at our country today. What really is the case, for example, for continuing with the absurd public subsidy to train companies to run our railways, instead of just taking what is a natural monopoly back into public ownership? In energy and banking industries, we should at least be looking at national or regional ‘public options’ which could undercut profiteering from the cartels that dominate those industries.
What these institutions might look like brings us to what Loach pinpoints as the failure of the left in the late twentieth century. While the collectivism of the post-war years expressed itself through politics, that spirit largely stopped at the ballot box. Nationalised institutions eventually became sclerotic and bureaucratic; run in the interests of people but with little of their input.
The only way by which the left of today can take up the spirit of 1945, while not repeating its failures, is through a relentless focus on economic democracy. Where institutions are state backed, they should be run equally by management and employees, ideally with third party input too. The plans for a ‘Peoples Port of Dover’ – controlled equally by employees, local residents and businesses – provides a good model.
This ethic also needs to be extended right across the economy, including to businesses. For example, Peter Tatchell and others have long argued for medium and large companies to be required to be run in this way, with shareholders and employees represented equally on boards, alongside an agreed (smaller) third group. This reflects the recommendations of the 1977 Bullock Report, never enacted in time before the tide of Thatcherism swept all such considerations away.
The dream of abolishing the profit motive has evaporated, and it is very unlikely to come back. Over a century social democracy (and even democratic socialism) has indeed sadly gone, as Dylan Riley puts it,“from a strategy for achieving socialism to a policy package for managing capitalism”. But if that’s to be the case, lets at least do it comprehensively.
Undoubtedly though, there are a some elements of the era Loach venerates which are dead – and to which it is less easy to reconcile. The working class still exists, but it is far more fractured, far less homogeneous than it was; the very nature of our cities have also changed. This all creates significant barriers to the important work of political and trade union organisation, particularly in the private sector.
As does the most pressing change of all: the way globalisation has transformed capital, making it more fluid and global, and far harder to regulate or tax. These problems are not insurmountable. But as Paul Mason has said, they do pose a dilemma for the left. Namely, this is whether we pursue a programme of ‘deglobalisation’ (capital controls, anti-outsourcing measures etc.) or enter the far more untested and ambitious terrain of global governance. This debate has yet to even really get under way in mainstream left circles, nevermind reach a conclusion.
Nevertheless, we have enough to be getting on with. As Eric Hobsbawm told Juncture shortly before his death:
“Politics is the only aspect of the 21st century world which globalisation [has] weakened but not transformed. It remains the only effective mechanism for social redistribution…It has its problems and abuses, but it remains the last bastion against the free market. And it needs politics – politics by collective action to move it.”
It is this which we can take forward as the true essence of the spirit 1945, linking that which can be rescued from that time to what we can bring to new challenges; the centrality of politics and collective action. This has never been more urgent than now, as we look back at the unquestioned inequity, inequality and unsustainability of the pre-crash years. Just as those post-war generations did, we too should vow never to go back to “that sort of peace”.