This insightful 2013 documentary about the birth of Britain’s welfare state, by left-wing moviemaker Ken Loach, is both uplifting and depressing at the same time. Inspirational in that Britain’s post-war Labour reforms were nothing short of revolutionary: visionary social democracy at its finest. Depressing because of how far our own Labour party has strayed from these ‘for the many, not the few’ principles.
In 1945 Britain’s returning troops were hailed as wartime heroes… yet they marched back from the horrors of battle to the horrors of working-class life. Lice-infested tenements, overcrowding, hunger, mass unemployment, disease, a bleak existence all round. Against this background, Labour leader Clement Attlee swept to a landslide victory in the 1945 elections on the promise of, among other welfare reforms, a free health service for all (the NHS); public ownership of the railways, mines and banks; and a massive social housing programme. Miners actually wept when they heard of Labour’s victory. To know that no longer was profit to come before health and safety (at the time a miner had an average life expectancy of 42) was like a beautiful miracle. As one ex-miner told The Guardian: “We owed trillions to the Americans at the end of the war, we had nothing, but we said ‘knickers to the debt’. We are going to put this country back on its feet.”
Think of it. Here was a country that was financially and physically devastated. Slum housing was rife, and many cities suffered severe bomb damage. And yet the government undertook a massive house building programme. The political will was there to do so. Tens of thousands of homes were thrown up speedily, to house the poor. Sure, many were prefabs and intended as temporary housing (even though some remain to this day) – but the point is that it was accepted that housing was a priority, no matter the financial difficulties. As was free access to health and education, regardless of a person’s income or social background. It was a given that ordinary people had to come first.
As we head towards another election, we need to bear this historic precedent in mind. Our own Labour Party’s response to people living in garages and cars and most working class people barely able to afford their rent, never mind their own home? Cut down on migration. Scapegoating migrants is pathetic – not to mention anti-working class - at best, dangerous at worst.
We’re told that solving the housing problem is complicated. So much energy goes into explaining why we can’t meet the need. Yes, it isn’t straightforward. We need to launch widespread apprenticeship schemes so we have the tradespeople, and to relax some of the red tape around building among other things. But it is possible. There are many models in Europe and Scandinavia of affordable, safe, medium density developments built of sustainable materials and that foster community interaction. But first and foremost we need the political will. What we need is a return to solid socialist principles, where the wealth of a nation is measured on how well we treat ordinary people, on how well the most vulnerable are cared for.
The Spirit of 45 is about precisely that. Download it. Watch it. Then put it on a USB and send it to Andrew Little.
Review by Maria SA.