The general election of 1945 is one of the key turning points of modern British history. Labour won a thumping Commons majority and used it to introduce the welfare state, nationalise key industries and guarantee full employment. You have to have a heart of stone – or be an implacable Thatcherite – not to feel that there was something wonderful, heroic even, about that moment.
According to Ken Loach’s documentary The Spirit of ’45, an election held nearly 70 years ago remains relevant to a world in which the free market is triumphant. As he says: “It’s time to put back on the agenda the importance of public ownership and public good, the value of working together collaboratively, not in competition.” A key part of his argument is that as the British people once enthusiastically embraced socialism, then we in our own times can and should emulate their example.
Described as a “celebration”, Loach uses his vision of the past to make blatantly contemporary political points. He is not alone in that – it’s what all historians do – but film documentaries have a greater emotional punch than words on a page. And because Loach is an accomplished filmmaker, his account is especially persuasive – particularly to those critics of neoliberalism who desperately want it to be true. But, sadly, while I am no particular fan of an unbound market, I fear that Loach’s version of 1945 is more imagined than real: it is, for want of a better word, propaganda.
His film certainly skilfully tears at the heartstrings. There are old folks telling us about the privations of interwar poverty and of how miners cried on news of Labour’s victory. It also uses fascinating and sometimes shocking archival film – notably of a confused Churchill being heckled – that make a lasting impression.
All this however obscures some inconvenient truths, hinted at in polls taken at the time by Gallup, revealed by the work of Mass Observation researchers. This evidence shows that more British people wanted a coalition of the main parties – in March 1945 43% – than sought a Labour government. An overwhelming majority wanted Churchill or the suave Conservative foreign secretary Anthony Eden to lead this coalition – not Clement Attlee.
The first-past-the-post electoral system nonetheless forced voters to choose between the parties. Given Labour won 48% of votes cast, when forced to choose, it is obvious that more wanted a Labour than a Conservative administration. But this also meant Labour’s tally included many Liberals and others who were not convinced socialists. Mass Observation uncovered some Liberals who voted Labour thinking they would reduce a widely expected Conservative Commons majority and were dismayed to discover they had made Attlee prime minister. In fact, a few weeks after the election nearly two-thirds of those polled described it as having been a “bad thing” largely because with the Pacific war still unresolved many felt it was improper to hold the contest.
The film is right to say that many Labour 1945 voters expressed the view of “never again”: they did not want a return to the kind of society that allowed mass unemployment to exist. The vast majority certainly supported the implementation of the 1942 Beveridge report and its promise of cradle-to-the-grave social security. Yet those that liked his suggestion of a National Health Service did so largely because they hoped to personally benefit, far fewer looked on it as an act of redistribution. In any case, the Liberal William Beveridge’s scheme was a continuation of progressive Edwardian reforms and it entailed welfare payments only just above subsistence. His was not a socialist measure, but one designed to make capitalism work more effectively.
There were, it is also true, large majorities in support of nationalisation – 60% supported the coal mines being put in state hands. However, not everyone in favour of some state control of the economy was a socialist. In fact the record of the coal industry in private hands was so grim, even a few Conservatives believed government was better placed to make it more efficient.
The society most people wanted from the 1945 election was a 1930s with jobs, that is, not socialism but reformed capitalism. This would be a private world. As a Labour candidate told his party’s conference in 1945, “two years ago, when I was in Africa, we fell to talking one day about what we hoped to see in the post-war world, and the fellow who put the point best was the one who said that he wanted to settle down with his wife in a cottage, with the kiddies, and to enjoy chocolates and looking after the chickens”.
There was no one Spirit of ’45. As in all elections Labour won thanks to a confusing coalition of contrasting views. Of course there were some convinced socialists among those who voted for Attlee’s party, keenly seeking a radical New Jerusalem in which the market played no part. But they were in a minority – although not as much as today.
Loach’s film should therefore be better called The Myth of ’45, for it peddles a fantasy, albeit one that provides comfort during these hard times for some on the left. But the danger of believing in a pristine moment is that it encourages adherents to denigrate the necessary compromises of the messy present. But the past in general and 1945 in particular was as politically complicated as our own times: those who suggest otherwise do not know their history.