Monday, March 11, 2013

1945 and all that

Ken Loach's new film The Spirit of '45, said the Guardian on Saturday, "revisits the year that Britons turned to socialism".

Today I came across two blog posts that questioned this interpretation of the 1945 general election.

Steve Fielding on Ballots & Bullets argues:
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.
And he goes on to say:
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”.
While David Boyle, who was on Start the Week with Loach this morning, arrives at a characteristically penetrating critique:
The idea that somehow the Labour creation was betrayed or destroyed by Mrs Thatcher, and we must look back to 1945 and do it all over again, is really nonsense. The truth is that these huge institutions carried the seeds of their own destruction. They carried the Thatcherite revolution within them, because they did not work - they disempowered, undermined communities, poured scorn on self-help, worshipped professionals, and never asked for anything back - which meant they failed to build community around them.
As he says, whatever public services now need, it does not involve going back to 1945.

1 comment:

Joseph Boughey said...

I concur with the views expressed, but perhaps for different reasons. Ken Loach is indeed looking backwards and recording “days of hope” that probably were not. The election results in 1945 were a surprise, not least to the Labour Party, and some policies had to be hastily constructed. The value of public ownership of industry and services had partly been demonstrated during the war – the war economy was an essential component in victory, and the “hard-faced men who look as if they had done very well out of the war” (to quote Stanley Baldwin’s description of the 1918 intake) were much less in evidence.

Public ownership had been supported by many Conservatives (and Liberals) in the interwar years – the nationalisation of coal mining and transport came very close in 1919, and the National Grid was set up by a Tory government in 1926, the same year as the BBC was established as a public corporation. There were alternatives to the Morrisonian vision of the public corporation, which was very top-down, bureaucratic, and run by former military, civil service or ex-private sector leadership.

Sadly, opportunities to create more participatory structures with worker and consumer involvement (and power) were not taken. Such involvements would have clashed with the social democratic centralist we-know-what-is-best-for-you view that assumed that the right leadership and management, and commercial criteria for operation, was all that was needed. Much the same infested the National Health Service and the administration of universal and selective benefits. The Liberals of the 1970s that I knew wanted much more democratic structures for public owned industries and services, not to hand the whole lot over to Branson, Serco or Starbucks. I doubt that 1945 marked the start of some form of libertarian socialism; this may have been found wanted but never tried.