There have been black people in Britain at least from Roman times; some historians claim that north Africans were here 3,000 years ago. The first Chinese visitor we know of was Jesuit priest Shen Foutsong, who communicated in Latin when he worked at the Bodleian Library in the 17th century. His portrait still hangs in the Queen’s collection. British involvement with India has a long history: Indian people were here in Shakespeare’s time.
People of colour have been part of the fabric of British society for centuries, but seek as you might, you won’t find any in Ken Loach’s feature-length documentary, The Spirit of 45.
It gets off to a cracking start. Powerful archive footage from the 1930s reminds us of the horrors awaiting if the Tory-led coalition succeeds in clawing back all the post-World War II gains made by the British masses.
Witnesses of those grim pre-war times are interspersed with commentary from younger pundits. In perhaps the most moving testimony, Sam Watts describes how he and his siblings slept five to a bed infested with fleas and bugs in a hovel with rats in the skirting and behind the walls.
Outside toilets were the norm. Meals consisted of swede and potato with no meat. Bread and dripping, far from being a staple, was a luxury as you needed beef for dripping, so carbohydrate-heavy jam was the unnutritious standby for hungry children.
To see footage of swaggering mine-owners juxtaposed with that of miners who’d had to dig out the bodies of their fellow workers because the health and safety the right so gleefully lampoons was absent, is to well up with tears of both sorrow and anger.
The tragedy befalling us, and a key message of the film, is that the days of filthy rich exploitation of the dirt poor are coming back.
Time and again you find yourself drawing parallels between the inequity we thought was consigned to history, and the devastation wrought today during the biggest upward redistribution of wealth — from the poorest to the richest — for centuries. A third of council housing is now owned by private landlords who charge exorbitant rents, subsidised by the public purse because successive governments won’t dare cap rents. Our utilities are in the hands of profiteering cabals. Food production is skewed by the big supermarkets (squeezing both farmers and consumers) who donate to political parties and even sit in government.
Back then, politicians understood that, to build a home fit for the heroes who’d won the war, it was crucial to combat the five evils: “Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.”
Atlee’s government accelerated the construction of council homes, nationalised key industries and gave us the first National Health Service in the world. To combat poverty, the government’s emphasis was on creating proper jobs making things, the best known cure for “idleness”. The tone of the era as captured by the film was one of coming out of the second world war together and rebuilding the nation out of the rubble.
As an antidote to the poison being poured out by today’s media backing the corrupt and discredited austerity policy of our unelected government, it is a powerful reminder that better things are possible.
However, about thirty minutes in, a growing unease sets in. The film may be shot in monochrome, but it presents a rose-tinted view of the Labour government, lacking any reference to its savage treatment of liberation movements in Kenya and Malaya, or its pursuit of cold war policies that specifically excluded people like Loach and his associates.
And suddenly the anaesthetisingly sentimental Hovis ad music shrieks and I’m shot out of the feelgood trance Loach is weaving, like Neo waking up in his dystopian cocoon in The Matrix. Not one non-white speaker. NOT ONE! He couldn’t find any in the NHS? Transport? Posties? Pensioners? It’s as if people like me have been bred out of the working class gene pool in Loach’s vision of an idealised white working class.
My own father, an ex-seaman, was a British trade unionist in Liverpool from the 1920s onwards, and one of the founders of the Chinese Seaman’s Union. It was needed as Chinese ran much of the merchant navy during World War II and plenty died for us in conflicts up to and including the Falklands War, and yet they were horribly discriminated against. Others, for example, wrote for the press, including Jack Chen, a correspondent for the Co-operative Movement’s Sunday paper Reynolds News. Had Loach researched archive footage with any genuine determination to represent the working class and the movement in its full range and diversity, he would have found plenty of Chinese firefighters in wartime Liverpool.
Trade Union historian Wilf Sullivan has published an overview of the immensely important work done by people of colour in the movement since the 1930s, and I know personally of one south Asian shop steward at Dagenham Fords in the 1970s, and yet Loach couldn’t find ONE?
If not from that specific period, then how about the younger talking heads commentating in the film? Are there really no activists of colour he could find who could add to our understanding of the political shift in post-war Britain?
Why distort the composition of the class that needs to resist capitalist predation? The Spirit of 45 gave rise to the Welfare State which required major waves of immigration from the Caribbean as a direct result of creating the NHS and all those jobs in transport. Where were they in the vision of ’45? Why are we being sold a mythologised Little England where everyone is white?
George Orwell pointed out in his bitter 1939 essay, “Not Counting Niggers”: “What we always forget is that the overwhelming bulk of the British proletariat does not live in Britain, but in Asia and Africa.”
Loach is well aware of this, as he’s been in enough revolutionary milieux and is familiar with the role of imperialism in the world. So why impose such a filter? Who gains?
Loach’s airy dismissal on BBC Radio 4 of his ethnic cleansing of our history was simple: “That’s how it was. That’s the record of the time. That’s what people thought, that was the moment of the time.” You can’t include stuff ” … to suit our present sensitivities.”
Harking back to a fictitious Golden Age when everyone was white is a dangerous game to play in the current climate of immigrant-bashing. It represents a surrender to a media-created antagonism towards non-whites and immigrants with polls showing that increasing numbers of us blame immigration for dwindling resources. Is this the audience that Loach and the People’s Assembly are hoping to win over? Films like The Spirit of 45 should be inspiring and educate people with the truth, rather than implying that if you can’t beat the EDL and UKIP then join them.
In constructing a narrative palatable to a consistuency increasingly susceptible to the dishonest blandishments of the right, Loach is speciously coy about the identities of his participants.
I recognised most of the talking heads as being members of far left groups and yet they weren’t identified as such, opting for titles that made them look like “ordinary” witnesses and workers when they clearly weren’t. It is absolutely fair that the far left, as members themselves of our society, should have a say in how our society is run. However, I’m puzzled as to why left leaders who tell their rank and file members to publicly identify themselves — indeed, that they should shout it from the rooftops — fail to do so themselves here. Why not? Why be so modest about your political affiliations?
As the late prominent sect leader Tony Cliff used to say, you must never lie to the class. That presumably includes lying by omission.
The most disturbing moment comes towards the end with a dramatic lingering still shot of an angry young black man raising his fist, the first and last image focusing on an ethnic figure rather than ones who’d accidentally strayed into view. It was as if the filmmaker and his associates were saying, “We will utilise your fury but we won’t give you a voice. We will do it for you using your muscle but not your political input. Thanks for the window dressing.” Given the absence of minorities in the telling of the tale, this seems opportunistic at best. It is also a sharp reminder of how the 9/11 attacks prompted former SWP leaders (now running Counterfire) of the Socialist Alliance to ditch the People’s Assembly Mk I when they courted the angry energy of disaffected Muslims. They weren’t slow to dump white working class interests then, to be picked up ten years later when the Muslim charm offensive had run out of steam.
It’s a shocking exclusion, and one that Loach’s defenders have tried to write off as an unthinking omission. It’s unlikely that a director with several decades’ worth of experience at the top of his craft wouldn’t know exactly what his mise en scéne was communicating.
It’s the same with his amnesia regarding the less savoury aspects of Labour’s history. Loach has been a political filmmaker since I was in nappies, so did he really forget Britain’s shameful roles in Korea and Kenya? Or that while it was imposing eight years of austerity they still had the funds to make Britain’s nuclear bomb? Or Labour under Harold Wilson closing more mines than Thatcher? Or its vicious attacks on the working class in the 1960s and 70s?
The film’s leap from from 1951 Festival of Britain to 1979, missing out, among others industrial conflicts, Grunwicks, is jarring and baffling.
In his eagerness to weave a romanticised view of the period Loach has resorted to distorting events. Does he have the courage of his conviction to let the facts galvanise his audiences into action and develop their consciousness? Or does the film induce a trance-like state for his audiences, a slack-jawed Spielbergian passivity?
The Spirit of 45 is emotionally effective but, as Tariq Ali once said of the huge Vietnam War protests, emotion doesn’t last. Look at how the Occupy movement has fizzled out despite the best efforts of principled activists. You need the politics and the theory to plan a course of action that will be effective and endure, otherwise you end up repeating the same mistakes and time is running out. I could quote Pete Townshend and the greatest political rock song ever written, Won’t Get Fooled Again, but most have been around the block more than once and know it by heart. If only it no longer held true.
My Guardian article: Ethnically cleansing working class history.
Not quite the Spirit of 45, Blood and Treasure.
More SWP rape accusation: “a dangerous place for a woman”
Dr Evan Smith with an illuminating response to my Guardian article: the British left and BME workers.
How was anti-Iraq war demo energy frittered away? Demobilising the STWC on the most crucial day of the anti-war movement.
Anna’s food blog here: