This post originally appeared on the Observing the 80s blog.
In the wake of Labour’s disastrous 1983 campaign Tony Benn informed readers of the Guardian newspaper that despite appearances it was a great achievement, because, ‘for the first time since 1945, a political party with an openly socialist policy has received the support of over eight and a half million people’.
During the 1980s Benn was not alone on the left and centre-left in looking at Labour’s first majority administration through rose-tinted glasses. The more Margaret Thatcher dismantled a post-war ‘consensus’ largely cast in the image of Clement Attlee’s government, the better 1945 looked. Benn’s claim that Labour’s 1945 programme represented ‘socialism’ in the same ways as did its 1983 manifesto was however contested. Certainly those Labour right-wingers who formed the Social Democratic Party in 1981 – among whom numbered Attlee’s own son – argued they were the legitimate legatees of the 1945 government. Yet, as Mass-Observation’s research at the time suggested, at least as interpreted by historians like me, few of those who voted Labour in 1945 were overtly socialist or social democratic.
How many Britons were enthralled by these attempts to appropriate the spirit of ‘45 is uncertain. Between 1982 and 1985, however, millions of ITV viewers watched the series Shine on Harvey Moon, written by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, one of a number of fictions about politics that I look at in my forthcoming book A State of Play. As Gran recalled in 2009, he and Marks wrote Shine on Harvey Moon:
because people were so miserable in this country, so sorry for themselves we thought we’d write about a time which was really hard, but a time when there was hope and we made the central character into a campaigning Labour councillor. That was really written as an Attleeist piece, full of hope and righteous indignation and a certain amount of laughs. It was written from the point of view of us actually believing that politics was not a completely ignoble undertaking and actually could do good and, at times in our history, has done good.
It was a remarkably partisan series, one that would have found little favour with the Prime Minister. Yet, because Marks and Gran wrote in a popular idiom, those who reviewed television in the Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph did not take it seriously, seeing it as ‘low brow drama’ or ‘a nostalgic little comedy’. Possibly for that reason, even the Daily Express liked it – although one of its critics was irritated by a ‘Dickens-like factory scenes with Harvey arguing trade unionism’. Sadly, Mass Observation’s 1980s surveys failed to pick up what its respondents thought about Shine on Harvey Moon. But responses to its autumn 1988 directive on television watching suggest the series was likely to have spawned hundreds if not thousands of conversations in households across the country.
Interviewed in the Daily Star in 1984, Marks claimed Harvey ‘is just Mr. Average. He’s a Joe Bloggs who’s struggling to get by’. Returning home in Hackney after the war to an estranged wife and two children, Harvey’s is a world of austerity. But it is also one of optimism, thanks to the Attlee government, one with which Harvey closely identifies. Ambitious for himself and his family, Harvey is however no selfish individualist, and believes his aspirations can be fulfilled only as part of the more general improvement of conditions for the working class, something he hopes will occur under Labour. The series moreover sides with Harvey and his view of the world by pointing out the realities of falling sick before the National Health Service and even, to the chagrin of the Express, showed the role unions played in improving working conditions.
While positive about Attlee’s achievements, and definitely anti-Tory, Marks and Gran present Labour as a rather flawed vehicle of change. On first entering the party Harvey dislikes being referred to as ‘comrade’ and finds its procedures irritating and po-faced. Many Labour members are also middle class. Indeed one leading activist is a posh solicitor who employs Harvey as his clerk and when he becomes a Parliamentary candidate he has Harvey serve drinks at a celebratory reception. There, Harvey engages with a group of left-wing intellectuals so alienating he quotes George Orwell’s comment that socialists were often the reason many people disliked socialism. Moreover, while Harvey hopes for a ‘classless society’, even under Labour, privilege remains, leading him to make a pointed remark about Cabinet ministers sending their sons to Eton. Furthermore, on the night he is elected councilor, Harvey meets Herbert Morrison who mistakenly believes he has won his ward thanks to dirty tricks – of which Morrison thoroughly approves – thereby contrasting Harvey’s idealism with the cynicism of Labour’s real Deputy leader.
This is, then, a strange kind of nostalgia, one that sees the 1940s through the prism of a populist mistrust of representative politics, a sentiment the writers more vigorously mined in their later 1980s comedy series The New Statesman. Running on ITV from 1987 to 1992, this was set in contemporary Westminster and was a work of utter cynicism, which depicted politics as ineffably corrupt. If the central character, Alan B’Stard, is the ultimate personification of Thatcherism, the series’ few Labour characters do not emerge with much credit either.
The vision Marks and Gran have of politics in the 1940s is notably more optimistic than their view of 1980s politics. To them 1945 was a moment of possibility and considerable achievement. But while open to the participation of ‘ordinary’ working men (if not women), Labour is nonetheless shown as over-populated by doctrinaire middle-class intellectuals and cynical machine politicians. In some ways however Marks and Gran better evoked the uncertainty, hope and skepticism that actually existed in 1945 – and which Mass Observation notably picked up in its reports on popular feeling – than did the self-interested perspectives articulated by Benn and the SDP in the 1980s, or much later, in Ken Loach’s 2013 film The Spirit of ‘45.