The Spirit of ’45 – and The Spirit of Our Time

I recently watched The Spirit of ’45, Ken Loach’s documentary (which has just been released in the United Kingdom) about the Clement Attlee-led British Labour Government, elected after the end of the Second World War in 1945.  I notice that Chris Trotter has discussed the film, and you can see the trailer for the film here, although it’s not clear if or when it will be released in New Zealand.

It would be unfortunate if The Spirit of 45 does not get a release in New Zealand.  It is a memorable film, which also offers valuable lessons for politics and society in Aotearoa today.  I want to explain why the film is so powerful – and then I want to sketch four points that come out of The Spirit of ’45 that I think are relevant to the New Zealand of 2013.

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The film tells the story of the post-War mood in the United Kingdom, and the elation that followed the election of the Labour government in 1945.  It focuses on the achievements of the Labour government in four areas – health, housing, industrial policy, and transport.  It tracks the creation of the National Health Service (the NHS), the construction of a large number of high-quality state houses, the improvement of health and safety across industries, and the nationalisation of transport (focusing in particular on railways).  The Spirit of ’45 outlines these efforts, and then sketches in brief the changes of the Thatcher era: a period of deregulation and government distancing from public services, which resulted in the deterioration of those public services; a deterioriation that was then used to justify further deregulation and privatisation.  This historical narrative is a fascinating one.

But where The Spirit of ’45 really stands out is in how it tells this story.  It not only draws on startling archival footage, including neglected footage of supposed war hero Winston Churchill being jeered while trying to speak to a crowd.  It also relays these events through the eyes and ears of those who lived through the times.  The film, shot primarily in black-and-white, is made up of interviews with miners, nurses, and others who grew up in the post-War era and who watched as the 1945 Labour Government set about implementing its progressive agenda.  These individuals talk, movingly, of sleeping in beds “with vermin’” during the War; being told of the death of parents through illness in a society that lacked public health measures; and their relief and joy following the establishment of proper state housing and a public health system.  The oral histories are intermingled with comments from modern-day economists and politicians who attempt to put these events into context.

The film is not neutral in its presentation (though any claim that a documentary is neutral is likely to be either blind to the inevitability of our perspectives shaping presentation of information, or dishonest in concealing an agenda).  It very clearly takes a favourable view of the post-1945 Labour government, and a critical posture towards the Thatcher government.  But Loach’s film does do well to present some alternative perspectives; it is mentioned, for instance, that in some ways nationalisation of industries did not improve worker sovereignty: it merely replaced a corporate board of managers with a state-run board of managers, it is claimed.  At any rate, the result of all this is a poignant and powerful piece of film-making that should linger in the minds of viewers long after the credits close.

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As well as being an evocative film in its own right, The Spirit of ’45 is a documentary filled with useful messages for those in the Left in New Zealand today (represented in Parliament I think by Labour, the Greens, Mana, and the Maori Party).  There are four messages worth pinpointing.

First, the film highlights the value of looking back to history in order to reinvigorate progressive efforts in the present.  From what was done by the post-1945 Labour government Ken Loach extracts important values for today: equality, empathy, solidarity, and participation, amongst others.  The references to history help to show, as well, what has been possible before, and what might be possible again now.  New Zealand is a different country, of course: with a different social makeup, our own traditions, and our own bicultural history.  But this lesson about the significance of history remains pertinent for the Left at home.  We don’t see enough references to the specific achievements of Savage and Fraser, in the First Labour Government of 1935–1949, or even to the work done by the Liberals in the 1890s.  Occasionally, MPs or others will invoke history: in a memorable recent speech, Jacinda Ardern said of the welfare system: “We will defend it because we built it.” But this rarely occurs, and these references are all too brief.  (It is possible, of course, that the policies of the Labour Party in the 1980s make it harder for Labour MPs in particular to present an image of a constant set of Labour values that have stayed strong across time.) New Zealand needs its own Spirit of ’45 to be made – The Spirit of ’35, which might render vivid to viewers what was done by Savage’s government from 1935 on, and the institutions set up then that we need to hold on to now.  We have useful books that have been written about this period.  But film is a medium with special power, and it is now more than ever – at a time of growing inequality – that we need to be reminded of some of the triumphs of the 1935 government (although, of course, we should acknowledge its weaknesses, too).

The second lesson that I’d take from The Spirit of ’45 is that the public service can be an engine of innovative and far-reaching ideas.  The film underscores the importance of the Beveridge Report, a report that came out of a 1942 inter-departmental working committee reviewing social insurance in the United Kingdom and which laid the intellectual foundations for the National Health Service.  (Parts of the report can be read here.) It also paints a picture of a public service working alongside politicians, such as Nye Bevan, to initiative progressive change across a range of sectors.  New Zealand does have some history of public servants working creatively and collaboratively with politicians: the Woodhouse Report that preceded the setting up of ACC in New Zealand (written, admittedly by a judge, Owen Woodhouse, not a public servant) is one example; another is the combined work of Ralph Hanan (as Minister of Justice) and John Robson (as Secretary for Justice) in developing a humane approach to prisons and criminal justice.  However, in recent history valuable policy ideas arising out of the public sector have been discarded or not engaged with sufficiently.  A case in point is the 1986 Royal Commission on Social Policy, which produced a wealth of valuable information about New Zealand values and policy ideas; another instance of this trend is Moana Jackson’s 1988 report, He Whaipanga Hou, on Maori and the criminal justice system – which was rejected by the Labour government, only to have come to be praised by a number of academics and commentators.  To be sure, public servants are unelected; this places constraints on their work.  But it seems that the public service is not sufficiently appreciated in Aotearoa as a source of ideas and research.  Public servants are too often seen as the gophers of politicians; the individuals that implement politicians’ ideas.  That does a disservice to their work and ability, and The Spirit of ’45 reinforces that point.

The film, thirdly, does well to emphasise how Thatcher-era policy is having an ongoing impact on the state of Britain today, with privatisation of railways last decade, for instance, showing the continuing legacy of the Thatcher-era state of mind.  The film’s message is that neoliberal reforms and ways of thinking are still with usThe Spirit of ’45 makes no attempt to stop its analysis with the fall of Thatcher.  Instead, it analyses the changes that followed Thatcher, right through to the Blair years.  In this way it encourages us to be alert to the fact that, though we criticise Thatcher-era policies, aspects of those policies are still in force.  This idea should resonate strongly with New Zealand viewers, too.  When we describe the market reforms of the 1980s as “Rogernomics”, there is a danger that we imply that they are just a thing of the past.  We have no more Rogers around any more in the New Zealand Parliament.  But the neoliberal ways of thinking engendered by those years – the suspicion of regulation and government generally, the faith in the power of competitive market forces, the fetishizing of economic incentives as drivers of behaviour – remain prominent in New Zealand.  And such perspectives are being actively perpetuated by policy such as the National Government’s partial privatisation of power companies.  We should make sure that at the same time as we criticise policies of the past in New Zealand, we are aware of policies in the present that emerge from the same economic paradigm.

Fourthly, and finally, what The Spirit of ’45 highlights is that governments do best when they capture the spirit of the times – when they draw inspiration from a reserve of values swelling up in the general population.  For Ken Loach, the spirit of ’45 was a recognition (after the Second World War) that collectives working together could do good; a sense of desperation about the poverty of the War era; and a desire to eradicate stark inequality.  But we might usefully ask ourselves: what is the spirit of our time, in Aotearoa? On what issues are bubbles of popular sentiment building? Which embryonic values do we need to nurture to improve the society that we have? It would be plausible to say that there are some lingering neoliberal views, as has been described above.  But maybe, just maybe, we are also seeing the build-up of well-springs of promising public opinion on issues such as the need to move away from prisons as a response to criminal justice; the imperative to foster a truly bicultural partnership in Aotearoa New Zealand; the problem of harsh inequality, especially as manifested in housing and the position of children in our society; and the challenge of climate change.  We should not be too rosy-eyed about views in society; there are many who would disagree with the optimistic viewpoint presented above.  We should, however, at least have a conversation about those values, lying just beneath the mainstream in popular discussion, that are bubbling up and that we all need to make more prominent.  The Greens deserve particular credit for underscoring some of these issues, such as child poverty and the environment, and trying to bring them to the public’s attention.  But more needs to be done.

The American philosopher Emerson once said, “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.” The Spirit of ’45 reminds us that we all need to do some hard thinking to know what to do with our time in Aotearoa.

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7 Responses to The Spirit of ’45 – and The Spirit of Our Time

  1. ll says:

    you lost me when you said: “supposed war hero Winston Churchill”. That man pretty much saved the world from the brink of disaster.

  2. Simon Connell says:

    Chris Trotter, on his blog, describes himself as an “Old New Zealander” – “i.e. someone who remembers what the country was like before Rogernomics.” And, of course, he’s not just talking about when Muldoon was in charge. The right-wing narrative that says Rogernomics saved NZ from the catastrophic economic situation we were in at the end of the Muldoon era conveniently gets to avoid any earlier history . Have you seen the “Revolution” documentary about Rogernomics (http://www.nzonscreen.com/title/revolution-1-fortress-new-zealand-2009)? It seems that it’s a little like the polar opposite of “The Spirit of ’45”.

    • mxharris says:

      Trotter’s comment is interesting, isn’t it. I haven’t seen ‘Revolution’. There is so much fascinating material on NZOnScreen! I might have a browse through ‘Revolution’ in the next few days …

  3. Wanyasi says:

    I really enjoyed this. It’s hopeful, considered and well balanced – keep it up. The neoliberal economic agenda has become so engrained (largely due to the efforts of the State’s pervasive global policies) that I feel people have forgotten that there are other ways to govern. New Zealand has a long history of being trend setters and it irks me to see this cast aside in favour of the dominant narrative of (what I think is) yesterday; hopefully articles like this can illuminate and inspire some critical thought beyond the tired discourse of growth…

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