Last night I went to see the new Ken Loach film, Spirit of 45, which is about the ways in which Britain was rebuilt, both physically and socially, after the destruction of the Second World War. I was doing a talk the next day (tonight!) about co-operative women’s magazine Woman’s Outlook, which was published by the Co-operative Press between 1919 and 1967, and I had a feeling it would give me a good sense of what life was like for people in the early to mid-twentieth century, the types of challenges faced and the hope for building a better, more equal Britain after the war – all topics discussed at length in Woman’s Outlook.
The film starts, as you would expect, in 1945, with celebrations that democracy had triumphed over fascism. However, in Britain, there were still challenges ahead. Many towns and cities were devastated by bombing, but even before the country was reduced to wreckage there were underlying problems of inequality and poverty that needed to be tackled; the country was run by the rich for the rich, one of the film’s talking heads mused, and another described the moment he realised the contrast between the riches amassed by Britain’s empire and the vermin-invested experience of his early years in Liverpool’s slums. The film is structured around interviews with those who saw the social upheaval that took place in Britain after the Second World War from all sides, with many interviewees now in their eighties and nineties, backed up by archive film of slum housing in inner cities, images of grimy workplaces and footage of strikes and protests. From children born in the slums of 1920s Liverpool to GPs who were practising both before and after the NHS was formed in 1948, nurses who saw first-hand the benefits of free healthcare for all, dockers, miners, railway workers and veteran socialist politicians like Tony Benn, what came across was how ardently they believed in the vision of a new Britain, and the power of working people to play a part in this.
The war had seen British people come together to triumph over Nazi forces, and there was a sense that to rebuild Britain a collective effort was needed once again, leading to the landslide election of a Labour government in 1945 – cue black and white footage of a nervous, overwhelmed-looking Clement Attlee announcing the party’s triumph at the polls. Labour then set about nationalising British industries such as the railways, mines and electricity, empowering local authorities to build thousands of homes and putting into place a welfare state to counter the ills identified by the Beveridge Report of 1942: Want, Idleness, Ignorance, Disease and Squalor.
However, as many of the interviews reminded us, this was not a bottom-up process. Industries may have been taken out of private hands into state control and, in many cases this did lead to better working conditions, but it did not mean the workers had any say in how they were owned or run. Missing from the film was any mention of co-operative models or values, though from reading Woman’s Outlook I know that co-operative organisations were fighting for similar aims, and I couldn’t help but think that this could have helped truly involve people more.
Frustratingly, immediately after showing the Festival of Britain of 1951, the film cuts to the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979, going on to show the aftermath of this on the economy and welfare state. A consideration of the 1950s and 1960s might have given some valuable background about how this could have come about – the end of rationing, rising living standards and greater affluence that came about in the 1950s, led to a consumer society and an increased emphasis on individualism. Now people had it better, generally speaking, perhaps there was less reason for hanging onto a cause such as socialism – all the more reason why I would have liked to have heard the views of the inspiring, politicised individuals in the film on their experiences of that period!
The film raised pertinent questions about who speaks for the poorest and least enfranchised in society today; the Labour party of the twenty-first century is certainly not representative of the majority of the working population. However, the real take-home message of the film was expressed best by a member of a pensioners’ association, who urged today’s youth to make links with those who remember life before the welfare state and NHS, to ensure that we make sure the priorities championed by those responsible for rebuilding Britain after the Second World War are not forgotten.