Troops of the 1st Australian Division advance towards the Ypres front line, October 1917. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
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Before the First World War: what can 1914 tell us about 2014?

Old world decline, rogue empires, killing for God – looking at 1914, we can discover that there are many uncomfortable parallels with our own time.

As we enter the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, many uncomfortable parallels with our own time spring to mind. In 1914 the superpower that dominated the world, controlling the seas and ruling over a global empire of colonies, dominions and dependencies – Britain – was being challenged by a rival that was overtaking it economically and building up armaments on land and sea to assert its claim for a “place in the sun” – Germany. All of this is alarmingly close to the situation today, when America’s global supremacy is increasingly being challenged by the rise of China.

The ideological rivalries between the superpowers now and then look strikingly similar, too, at first glance: on the one hand, Britain then and America now, with their democratic political systems that make governments responsible to legislatures and removable by popular elections; on the other, Germany then and China now, with appointed and irremovable governments responsible only to themselves. A free press and open public on the one hand contrast with a controlled public sphere on the other, in which censorship and the trappings of a police state in effect muzzle the government’s most trenchant critics.

And of course there was, and is, the baleful influence of nationalism, with China’s sabre-rattling over disputed islands today yielding little in rhetorical vehemence to the kaiser’s bombastic speeches asserting German claims in Africa and the Middle East before 1914. The clash of ideologies and religions was evident before 1914, just as it is today, and in both cases concentrated on trouble spots in specific parts of the world.

Currently it is the conflicts in the Middle East we have to worry about, with a vicious civil war in Syria between rival Islamic factions standing proxy for the rivalry between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, while an additional element of danger is provided by Israel, with its nuclear arsenal, and again Iran, with its persistent attempts to build one. China and Russia are lining up behind one side while Nato and the US line up behind the other.

Before 1914 the critical trouble spot was the Balkans, where nationalist passions were overlaid with religious conflicts between Christian states, such as Greece and Bul­garia, and the Islamic Ottoman empire. The Habsburg monarchy, run by a Roman Cath­olic elite, was being challenged by Orthodox Serbia. Just as there have been wars pre­viously in the Middle East (in 1948, 1967 and most recently in 1973), so too there had been wars in the Balkans, between Russia and Turkey in 1877-78 and between Serbia and Bulgaria in 1885. So 1914, sometimes known in the region as the third Balkan war, was nothing new for these countries.

All the Balkan powers were heavily armed, buying up the latest weaponry from Europe’s leading manufacturers with loans supplied by the British, French and German governments. All of these countries were politically unstable, with governments being violently overthrown and terrorist organisations such as the Serbian “Black Hand” and the Internal Macedonian Revo­lutionary Organisation flourishing.

The Balkan states, much like nations of the Middle East today, to a degree stood proxy for larger powers, notably tsarist Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary. They had come close to the brink during the first Balkan war in 1912-13, when Montenegro in alliance with Serbia attacked northern Albania, where there were virtually no Serbs or Montenegrins among the inhabitants. Austria-Hungary demanded Serbia’s with­drawal, Russia began to mobilise in support of the Serbs, and France declared its support for the Russians. The situation was defused only by a British intervention, resulting in an international conference that guaranteed independence for Albania.

The whole episode was an ominous foretaste of what happened in August 1914. With the break-up of the alliance of the Balkan states in 1913, Bulgaria went over to the patronage of the Germans, while Russia’s only client left in the region was Serbia. Serbian ambitions had already prompted Austria-Hungary to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina, with their substantial population of Serbs, in 1908. It would be just as wrong to dismiss all of this as irrelevant to the ambitions and rivalries of the Great Powers, as Boris Johnson has done recently, as it would be to dismiss the violent antagonisms in today’s Middle East as unimportant to international relations on a wider scale.

And yet the Balkan nations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were no more mere puppets of Germany or Russia than the Middle Eastern states of today are puppets of America, Russia or China. As President Obama has discovered, trying to control Israeli governments is no easy task; he might tell the Israelis not to build any new Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank but they carry on regardless. China and Russia might block western attempts to impose sanctions on the Assad regime in Syria and may continue supplying it with arms, but they have not been able to control it or stop its opponents, so they have become willing to explore ways of ending the conflict peaceably; their co-operation in the removal of chemical weapons signals their refusal to back the regime all the way.

China supplies Iran with weapons and with nuclear technology but can do little to mediate its policy in the Middle East, and its approach is tempered by the need to keep up good relations with the United States. Not least because of the growing importance of economic ties with the west, Russia has bowed to international pressure for sanctions on Iran and has curbed its arms supplies to the country. In all of this, there are few indications that the world’s great powers today are being drawn into regional conflicts as closely as they were in 1914.

One important reason for this lies in our changed attitudes to war. In Europe, the wars of the 19th century were limited in duration and scope, and seldom involved more than a handful of combatant nations. All told, deaths in battle between 1815 and 1914 were seven times fewer than combat deaths in the previous century. The wars of German unification in the 1860s, the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78 and similar conflicts were swiftly resolved by decisive victories for one side or the other. Even the Crimean war of 1854-56 did not move much beyond the hinterland of the Black Sea.

In the 19th century fear of the upheaval and destruction caused by the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars brought the leading European states together time and again in what was known as the Concert of Europe to resolve potential conflicts through international conferences. Though it was severely damaged in the 1850s and 1860s, the Concert was patched together again in the 1870s, when the Congress of Berlin redrew the map of the Balkans, while another Berlin conference sorted out colonial rivalries (without, needless to say, consulting any of the millions of people about to be colonised) in 1884. These institutions, like the United Nations of today, provided a forum in which diplomats and statesmen could work together to avoid war, and they largely succeeded.

If there is no sign that the UN, for all its inadequacies, is about to collapse, it is not least because the postwar settlement of 1945 rested on a general recognition that international co-operation in all fields had to be stronger than it was under the League of Nations, the UN’s ill-fated predecessor. The destruction caused by the Second World War, with its 50 million or more dead, its ruined cities, its genocides, its widespread negation of civilised values, had a far more powerful effect than the deaths caused by the First World War, which were (with exceptions, notably the genocide of a million or more Armenian civilians, killed by the Turks in 1915) largely confined to troops on active service. In 1945, Hiroshima and Nagasaki provided an additional, ter­rible warning of what would happen if the world went to war again.

In 1914, by contrast, very few people had any idea of the cataclysm that was about to descend on them. Just as admirals thought that the war at sea would be a rerun of the great naval engagements of the past, so the generals thought the war on land would be something like the conflicts of the 1860s, opening with rapid, railway-borne advances to the front, followed by a decisive encounter in which the other side would meet with a shattering defeat; peace would then be concluded after a few weeks or at most a couple of months. Since those days, however, barbed wire, patented in 1874, and the machine-gun, perfected in portable form a decade later, had become standard defensive equipment; at the same time, the internal combustion engine and armour plating were not yet advanced enough to produce tanks that could overcome these obstacles effectively and restore movement to warfare. A few recognised these inconvenient facts, notably the Polish banker Jan Bloch, whose Modern Weapons and Modern War, published at the turn of the century, argued that in the next major war, “the spade will be as important as the rifle” and forecast that the war of the future would be a gridlock in which quick victory would be impossible.

But nobody heeded this prediction, because generals, politicians and civil servants were unable to accept its denial of easy victory. By 1910 at the latest, the idea that a war was coming was shared by many – indeed, generated a momentum towards it. Admiral Jackie Fisher wrote of the atmosphere he created in the Royal Navy after 1902: “We prepared for war in professional hours, talked war, thought war, and hoped for war.” The chief of the German general staff declared in 1912 that war must come “and the sooner the better!”. War in this vision appeared as something not only inevitable, but also positive. A German novelist wrote of August 1914: “At last life had regained an ideal significance. The great virtues of humanity . . . fidelity, patriotism, readiness to die for an ideal . . . were triumphing over the trading and shopkeeping spirit . . . The war would cleanse mankind from all its impurities.” The war appeared as a chance to do something glorious in a prosaic age.

In like vein, British writers enthused about the opportunity that war would present:

To die young, clean, ardent; to die swiftly, in perfect health; to die saving others from death, or worse – disgrace . . . to die and carry with you into the fuller, ampler life beyond, untainted hopes and aspirations, unembittered memories, all the freshness and gladness of May – is that not a cause for joy rather than sorrow?

as Horace Annesley Vachell wrote in The Hill (1905). The war appeared as a release, a liberation of manly energies long pent up, a resolution to all the insoluble problems that had plagued European politics and society in increasing measure since the late 19th century: an escape into a simpler, clearer and more glorious reality.

War was also widely seen before 1914 by the upper classes across Europe as an assertion of masculine honour, like a duel, as it were, only on a much bigger scale. Duelling was a common way of avenging real or imagined slights to a man’s honour in virtually every European country at the time. The French politician Georges Clemenceau had fought a duel; so too had the Russian prime minister Pyotr Stolypin. Duelling was a frequent occurrence among the Junker aristocracy in Germany, and politicians in Austria-Hungary regularly engaged in duels. Only in Britain had they died out: the point of a duel was to vindicate one’s manly honour by standing unmoving as your opponent fired a bullet at you at twenty or thirty paces, and the invention of modern cricket, in which a man was required to face down a different kind of round, hard object as it hurtled towards him from the other end of the wicket, was a satisfactory (and comfortingly legal) substitute. Forcefulness, strength of will, self-assertion and standing firm against an enemy were all part of a code of behaviour of the upper-class men whose actions brought Europe and the world to war in 1914, in contrast to the flexibility and subtlety of the greater statesmen of an earlier generation, such as Bismarck, whose awareness of the precariousness of the German empire’s position in the international order was as great as Kaiser Wilhelm II’s disregard for it.

Such codes of male behaviour appear almost incomprehensible a century later. Politicians of the nuclear age are all too aware of the fragility of the world order. Masculine posturing nowadays earns only ridicule. The horrors of Nazi racism and genocide also put paid to the doctrine of social Darwinism, which had become widely accepted among European elites by the beginning of the 20th century but did not survive the war of 1939-45.


Remember them: wooden crosses recall victims of the 21st-century war in Iraq near Westminster Abbey, London, 2006. Image: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty.

Yet at the same time, the leaders of almost every European nation in 1914 were racked by anxiety about the future. Germany feared the growing might of Russia; Austria-Hungary was made nervous by the rise of Slav nationalism within its borders; Russia was afraid of further humiliation of the kind it had been forced to endure with its defeat in the war against Japan in 1904-1905. Internally, too, European states were in trouble, with strikes, suffragette campaigns and the threat of civil war in Ireland destabilising Britain; assassinations and labour unrest undermining tsarist autocracy in Russia; and the victory of the Marxist Social Democrats in Germany’s 1912 elections causing a crisis of confidence among the ruling elite.

One might point to the parallel of the present crisis in the eurozone, in which all the participant states hope to avoid a collapse but all are also pursuing their own interests and so differ on how it is to be averted; but the social unrest it has sparked has been confined largely to Greece, and the main states have been able to work together to limit the damage, with the result that collapse, so far, has been avoided.

Still, economic factors played a role in 1914 just as they do today. In France and especially in Britain, national debates opened up about the seemingly unstoppable success of the German economy. And indeed, German industry had already overtaken that of Britain by the eve of the war. It had increased Germany’s share of world industrial production fourfold since 1860, while Britain’s share had sunk by a third. Germany was producing twice as much steel as Britain, and dominated the chemical and electrical industries worldwide through firms such as Siemens, BASF, AEG and many others. In science the theories of Max Planck and Albert Einstein were revolutionising physics, while Robert Koch and his pupils were taking the lead in discovering the causes of one disease after another through their pioneering work in bacteriology. The motor car was a German invention, as was the diesel engine. There are parallels between such anxieties and the worry, sometimes extending to paranoia, in the US today about the rise of China. Yet so far American concerns have not translated into political action. The interventions of the US have been directed not against China’s role in other parts of the world but against medium or small regional powers such as Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Before 1914, however, there were many in Germany at least who thought that Ger­man economic and technological growth should, or would, translate into political power on the world scene. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the dominant notion of global power in Europe rested on the possession of overseas colonies. A newly united Germany had largely missed out on the spoils of empire in the “Scramble for Africa” in the 1880s. The British government was not opposed to recognising Germany’s claim to colonies; in fact, at one point there was a deal in the offing whereby London agreed to the Germans’ acquisition of the ramshackle and poorly defended overseas empire held by the Portuguese.

All this points to a huge difference between the world of 1914 and the one of today. A century ago, Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Russia possessed vast colonies with millions of subjects. With its growing power and influence, the United States was also starting to join the club. The First World War was a struggle between empires and one of its products was a repartition of the globe, with Germany’s colonies seized and distributed among the victors.

Colonialism lost all legitimacy after 1945. The early 21st century is witnessing the growth of former colonies such as Brazil, or Nigeria, or India, into major players in the global economic game. In contrast to the decades of the cold war, when international relations were a bipolar system that pitted the Soviet Union against the western powers in direct opposition to each other, we now have a multipolar system. The world has become more like that of the late 19th century, although Britain, despite its vast overseas empire, was nowhere near as dominant as the United States has been since the collapse of communism. Then, too, international relations were constituted as a multipolar system; the difference was that almost all the major competitors were from within Europe itself.

The breakdown of this system was one of the main factors leading to the outbreak of war in 1914. Up to 1904-05, Britain had regarded France and Russia as its main rivals for global influence, but as dangerous Anglo-French colonial differences in Africa were settled, and Russia turned away from Asia following its defeat by Japan, the rise of Germany took centre stage and Europe divided itself, along the lines of the later cold war, into two armed and increasingly antagonistic camps. In an atmosphere that fostered largely positive attitudes to war this was an ominous development, and one without parallel in the early 21st century, for all the posturings over Syria or Iran of Russia and China on the one hand and the Nato powers, on the other.

There is another parallel between the two ages. Just as we are in the midst of an era of rapid globalisation today, so in 1914 processes of globalisation were well under way, thanks to the telephone, the steamship, and potentially the aeroplane. Mutual investment by French and German companies created new economic entities that crossed the Rhine. Cultural exchange, tourism, economic interpenetration, all were reaching global dimensions by 1914.

For all the Marxists’ convoluted attempts to prove that the driving forces behind the First World War were economic, the logic of capitalism told against war rather than for it. Yet neither economic rationality nor cultural familiarity proved an obstacle to conflict. The reason for this is not, however, ideological. Nothing could be less plausible than the current attempts of Conservative politicians and writers such as Michael Gove and Boris Johnson to portray the outbreak of the First World War as a clash between Britain’s liberal democracy and Germany’s authoritarian militarism.

In 1914 40 per cent of adult males in Britain did not have the right to vote; the troops who signed up were not volunteering to defend rights that nearly half of them lacked. All adult males in Germany could vote. The largest political party in Germany, the Marxist SPD, initially opposed the war, voted for war credits only because the government successfully presented the issue as one of defence against tsarist despotism, and was committed to a peace without annexations. By the second half of the war the kaiser had been forced to con­cede democratic reforms in Prussia. Kaiser Wilhelm – erratic, indecisive, unstable – was not Hitler. Imperial Germany was not a dictatorship.

One thing that those who want us to celebrate the First World War as a fight for British values have in common with the Blackadder television series is that all of them focus exclusively on the Western Front. But we need to raise our heads above the trenches and take in the wider dimensions of the war. That one of Britain’s two main allies was the despotic Russia of Tsar Nicholas II should banish any thoughts of the war having been fought in defence of “western liberalism” until Russia’s exit from the war in 1917-18. British propaganda of course portrayed the conflict in moral and ideological terms, rightly pointing to German atrocities in Belgium in the opening weeks, though it quickly came to exaggerate them in the process. However, there were many atrocities in the Balkans and on the Eastern Front, too, and it would be wrong if the commemorations about to begin neglected the wider European and global dimensions of the conflict in a simplistic parroting of the British propaganda of the time.

Perhaps the most striking difference between the world in 1914 and that of 2014 lies, in a way that would have surprised our ancestors of a century ago, in the greater power of religion today to disrupt the inter­national order. Whatever the First World War was about, it was a determinedly secular conflict. Only in the Ottoman empire, and the Balkans, perhaps, did religion play a role, yet even the Armenian genocide was justified by the Turks mainly in ethnic and security terms. The leading combatants in the First World War were pursuing decidedly secular interests.

Absurdly, Nigel Biggar, a professor of theology in Oxford, has leapt into the fray in Standpoint magazine to claim, with all the self-importance of his tribe, that morality – in other words, God – was on the British side in 1914. The argument is irresistibly reminiscent of J C Squire’s epigram of the day: “God heard the embattled nations sing and shout/‘Gott strafe England’ and ‘God save the King!’/God this, God that, and God the other thing –/‘Good God!’ said God, ‘I’ve got my work cut out!’”

Terrorism today may be fuelled mainly by religion, and religious conflicts certainly underpin political tensions in the Middle East, yet despite the belief of some on the Republican right in the US that a war over Israel will lead to Armageddon and the Second Coming, there is no evidence that religion plays a significant role in international relations between the major world powers today. For all the parallels with the nationalist passions that swept Europe in 1914, there is even less evidence that they drove Britain, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary or France to war. Statesmen later claimed that popular pressure propelled them into the conflict, but this was an ex post facto self-justification that should be treated with the scepticism every such claim of this kind deserves.

Meanwhile, in 1914 and after, nationalist passions in the main combatant powers were overwhelmingly the product of the war’s outbreak, not the cause. The war inaugurated three decades of nationalist hatreds in Europe, driven by the need to justify the conflict. They were made worse by what now appears the calamitous policy of national self-determination propagated by President Woodrow Wilson in his “Fourteen Points”. Economic rivalries broke out between the new states created after the war, making it impossible to clear up the financially ruinous consequences of the conflict, first triggering a disastrous inflation and then contributing to the catastrophe of the Slump. Democracies collapsed under the pressure of nationalist passions all over Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. The idea of an ethnically homogeneous nation state then caused untold suffering and millions of deaths between 1918 and 1948, as minorities were oppressed, expelled and murdered all over central and eastern Europe.

As we commemorate the First World War, we surely need to focus above all on the lessons to be learned from these tragic experiences. During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, President John F Kennedy showed that he had paid attention: his reading of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August convinced him that muddle, indecisiveness and poor communication between the leaders of the Great Powers in 1914 had caused the slide into war, and that a nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union could be avoided only if he made his position unambiguously clear to Nikita Khrushchev, as indeed he did.

In the early 21st century, however, when the threat of a nuclear conflict between the world’s leading powers has receded, the lesson we need to learn from the catastrophe of 1914 is a different one. Although France, Germany and other participants in the First World War will be telling us to stop a repetition of the disaster by building European unity and understanding, the focus of politicians should really be on the Middle East, the Balkans of the early 21st century, which still threaten to explode into a wider, more dangerous conflagration.

Richard J Evans is Regius Professor of History and President of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge

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Rebel with a realist cause

Michael Winterbottom, Britain’s busiest film-maker, discusses cinema, social mobility and how we are returning to the 19th century.

In the early 1960s, Lindsay Anderson was enjoying the power and esteem that he had always thought the English would be too philistine to grant him. His Free Cinema movement, launched in February 1956 with a series of modest, hand-held documentaries and a strident manifesto, had mutated into “kitchen-sink realism”, a series of popular feature films that included Tony Richardson’s Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and his own This Sporting Life. Anderson seemed dangerously close to becoming the  leading spokesman of mainstream British cinema. But then, as he recalled, “Realism gave way to the myth of Swinging London. The Americans, God bless them, put up a lot of money and the British made a lot of bad films.”

When, bored and broke, the Americans went home, taking many of his colleagues along with them, Anderson stayed behind. He made if . . ., which won the 1969 Palme d’Or at Cannes, and a sequel, O Lucky Man!, and then – nothing. For most of the 1970s, British cinema was virtually an oxymoron. But when the industry came back to life at the start of the next decade, with GandhiChariots of Fire and the formation of Channel 4 Films, he refused to celebrate or capitalise, preferring to tut and clutch his brow.

In November 1985, the month when his former protégé Stephen Frears first startled a general British audience with My Beautiful Laundrette, which updated kitchen-sink realism with new causes (multiculturalism, gay rights) and villains (Thatcher, the National Front), Anderson was making gentle progress on a backward-looking endeavour – a television documentary about Free Cinema, to form part of an initiative he despised called British Film Year. A born dawdler, equally petrified of success and failure, he was having trouble with the stills and inserts. “I finally get the operation organised,” he wrote in his diary, “by insisting that the attractively cherubic Michael Winterbottom be my assistant.”

When I spoke to Winterbottom last year, he told me, “Lindsay Anderson was a director I really admired and I wondered why he had made so few films. Then I met him. There was a lot of messing around” –bickering, procrastination, mischief. And perfectionism: “Even on the Free Cinema documentary, he ended up reshooting ­everything.” Winterbottom wanted to emulate Anderson’s work – the intransigence, the looseness – but he realised that in order to follow those examples and still have a career, he needed to make peace with prevailing industrial conditions and devise a plausible, even hard-nosed working method.

Three decades later, he is constantly in work. Alongside Frears, he is Britain’s busiest film-maker. At any given moment, he occupies two or more points in a process that goes something like: development, financing, casting, filming, editing, festival circuit, domestic release. But where Frears has graduated to working with Hollywood studios, Winterbottom relies on independent financing and employs a no-fuss, often hand-held, digital shooting style. David Thompson, the former head of BBC Films who is now an independent producer, told me, “Michael pioneered a way of working that we tried and failed to get other directors to adopt: if you can’t get the crew in a minivan, then you’ve got too many people.”

The results so far have included 24-Hour Party People, a comedy about the Manchester music scene that captured Winterbottom’s own philosophy of productive chaos, and 9 Songs, in which a climatologist recalls a relationship through nights at rock concerts and uncensored days in bed. Winterbottom’s most recent film, The Emperor’s New Clothes, a documentary about inequality, presented by Russell Brand, was his 28th. And that doesn’t include The Trip, the BBC2 comedy series starring the comedians Steve Coogan – a Winterbottom regular – and Rob Brydon, which was released outside Britain as a pair of films, The Trip and The Trip to Italy: to date, his only sequel.

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Working alongside the producer Andrew Eaton, Winterbottom has established an atmosphere of rigour and determined focus that allows him to take risks. Eaton, who has known Winterbottom for more than 30 years, told me that “no other director comes to set with such a strong sense of what he’s trying to get combined with a complete openness to what could happen in the day”. When Winterbottom was making the family drama Wonderland in the late 1990s, he took his skeleton crew into London bars that were open for business. Punters became extras. “The people in a place are so much part of the environment,” Winterbottom said. “We were trying to get a different texture, to let the characters interact with the real world.”

Winterbottom and I were having breakfast in a London hotel restaurant. When I arrived, he had just finished a television interview about The Face of an Angel, a rumination on the Amanda Knox trial starring Daniel Brühl and Cara Delevingne, which opened in 2014 to baffled reviews. Winterbottom, who turns 55 in March, still looks like a cherub, but a cherub going grey at the sideburns. He is affable, even happy-go-lucky, but also remote – withdrawn. His gaze carries a slight air of wistfulness, as if he is distracted by some opportunity five yards beyond your shoulder. And though he talks very quickly, he is a specialist in prevarication and reversal. Assertions are parried, questions dodged. But when he’s comfortable, he’s fluent.

Winterbottom continued to tell me about the thinking behind Wonderland, which many consider his greatest film. He compared it to Notting Hill, which was being shot further west around the same time. “As soon as you go in and control everything, you’re destroying the essence of what London is. If you want to catch what normal life is like, you have to work in quite a small way, a hand-held way, in real places.”

Yet Wonderland is never dowdy. Shots of, say, an average night at the Slug and Lettuce or the bingo hall, or yet another frustrating afternoon at Selhurst Park, are offset by the lithe, buzzing images (a 16mm negative blown up to 35mm), the restlessly inquisitive editing and Michael Nyman’s soaring symphonic score. The result far exceeds anything made during the kitchen-sink period in the breadth of its humanism and the range of its social portraiture, and deserves to be recognised as one of the great achievements of British cinema.

The Scottish actress Shirley Henderson said that working on Wonderland, the first of six collaborations, wasn’t like being on a film set, with “caravans” and co-stars. “You were just waiting on a pavement somewhere.” To help Henderson research her role as the working-class Londoner and single mother Debbie, one of three troubled sisters, Winterbottom sent her on what she called “errands”: going clubbing in character, or visiting the sort of hairdresser at which Debbie worked. Henderson added the details garnered on these field trips to a screenplay, written by Laurence Coriat, that was treated as far from sacrosanct. Speaking generally of her work with Winterbottom, she said: “You know the lines – and you might get to say them, you might not. He might run the scene another five minutes after your lines are finished.”

I asked Henderson how Winterbottom’s toss-the-script-aside approach compared with the process favoured by Mike Leigh, who directed her in Topsy-Turvy. With Leigh, she said, “You improvise for hours to find a honed scene that you shoot the next day. With Michael, it’s a quicker process. You don’t rehearse as such. You’re improvising on film. If he’s not got enough, he’ll just go again and again and again.” At breakfast, Winterbottom, who recoils from analysis, defined his ambitions with a shrug: “Try to keep it simple, get as close to the characters as possible, encourage actors to be spontaneous.”

Wonderland was Winterbottom’s sixth feature film and marked a breakthrough for him, in particular a turn away from the professionalism of Welcome to Sarajevo, his polished, starry account of TV journalists covering the Bosnian War, in favour of a realist aesthetic. He told me that he doesn’t see himself as part of any movement – “What, like Free Cinema? No, no” – but his desire to find an alternative to conventional dramatic narrative connects him to a loose group of artists and writers intent on bringing more “reality” into their work. Prominent among them are the authors David Shields, who mentions Winterbottom in his manifesto Reality Hunger, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose My Struggle series Winterbottom has been reading (“I’m very impressed”). But where Shields and Knausgaard have turned away from the novel in favour of more direct, less dissembling forms such as the memoir and the essay, Winterbottom’s desire to get as far away from artifice and as close as possible to hectic, complex, undramatic life has resulted not in a choice of one form that solves all the problems but a sensibility that he brings to a range of genres.

Winterbottom’s war against tidy artifice has taken various forms. Sometimes it is built in to a project’s conception: he made 9 Songs because he thought that his previous love story Code 46 had been timid in the way it presented sex. It has determined his approach to source material. When he was adapting Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles as Trishna, he combined the roles of the “spiritual” Alec and the “sensual” Angel because, he told an interviewer, “most people are a combination of both”. But with Jim Thompson’s novel The Killer Inside Me, he took the opposite approach: he found Thompson’s portrait of psychosis so complete, so convincing, that he treated the book “like the Bible”.

Winterbottom’s widely acknowledged formal innovations are a means to an end. I mentioned the editing in his 2008 film, Genova, which constantly prevents exchanges and encounters from settling down into a set piece. He dismissed the idea that he was consciously experimenting. “When you’re making a film, you’re worried about the specifics of what you’re trying to do and then building out from that,” he said. The starting point of Genova is the dynamic between the dad and the two daughters. “I have two daughters [from his 13-year relationship with the teacher and novelist Sabrina Broadbent] and one aspect of the film, like with Wonderland and London, was to portray a relationship that I would recognise. The aim was to not make it dramatic, because your relationships at home aren’t very dramatic.”

***

In his diary, Lindsay Anderson – who often quoted the ancient maxim “Character is destiny”– marvelled at Winterbottom’s ability to attend to things that mattered and ignore the things that didn’t. Where Anderson was an idealist and a perfectionist, Winterbottom was “wholly unsentimental” – “conscientious” in tracking down stills, his assigned task, but “quite happy to absent himself from crucial, if routine stages of finishing”.

It was partly a product of breeding. Where Anderson, scarred by boarding school, loved to defy those with power (having a private income helped), Winterbottom attended the local grammar school in Blackburn and grew up in kitchen-sink territory; a scene in John Schlesinger’s 1962 film A Kind of Loving was shot at the factory where his father worked. When he was a teenager, his favourite book was Jude the Obscure, Hardy’s novel about a farm labourer who dreams of going to Biblioll College, Christminster. Winterbottom made it to the real-world version – Balliol College, Oxford – where, in a desultory, distracted way, he studied English. (In 2012 he returned to Oxford to become the first Humanitas Visiting Professor in Film and Television.)

Winterbottom likes to say that he’s simply attracted to good stories and interested in the same things as “everybody else”, but The Emperor’s New Clothes, which came out in April last year, emerged from his personal history. A product of grammar schools and grants, he considers himself a beneficiary of the “social mobility and access” that burgeoned after the Second World War. (He campaigned for Jack Straw in Blackburn in 1979.) “The idea that to be ‘modern’, you need an unregulated free market that helps the rich get richer is bullshit,” he said, adding that its widespread acceptance has been “one of the triumphs of that ideology”. He continued, “We had a phase of about fifty years where what was ‘modern’ was the idea that things will get fairer – there will be a narrowing of the gap, maybe not in a radical way, but at least a general trend in that direction.

“It’s fairly hard to believe that we used to collectively own the water, gas, coal, trains, telephone. People were being taxed at 98 per cent on unearned income, 83 per cent on earned income. Instead, we’ve returned to the 19th-century idea that if you’re born poor, you’re going to stay poor.”

After his English degree, he completed a one-year course in film-making in Bristol. Then he needed a job.

“There was no way I would have been able to hang around and do ‘internships’,” he told me. “I became a trainee assistant film editor at Thames Television” – which is how he came to work for Anderson and where he was given his first professional directing job, on a pair of documentaries about the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, from whom he learned that if you establish fruitful partnerships and retain a clear sense of what you’re trying to achieve, film-making is “not that hard”. (Bergman may have been “just as complicated psychologically” as Anderson, “but when it came to the work, he was disciplined”.)

In 1993, after the Bergman documentaries and then a run of commissions in television drama, including the opening episodes of Jimmy McGovern’s ITV series Cracker, Winterbottom was itching to make his first feature film. Frank Cottrell Boyce, a friend from Oxford, had written a script entitled Delirious, about car thieves in Liverpool, but it was failing to attract a backer, so they moved on to a new idea: another crime thriller set in Lancashire, but with a difference – it could be done cheaply, with money cobbled together from public funding bodies. “All our anger and frustration about not making the other one went into it,” Winterbottom recalled. “We did it for nothing. It was a very stressful phase. And that was Butterfly Kiss” – in which a pair of chalk-and-cheese lesbians cause havoc on the M6.

In Icons in the Fire, an attack on “practically everyone in the British film industry”, in which Winterbottom is one of the few heads spared, the critic Alexander Walker recalled his surprise when the director followed up Butterfly Kiss with a “period drama”. But Jude – the first of Winterbottom’s three Hardy adaptations – was fast-moving and stark, not at all Merchant-Ivory. After Jude, there came, in swift succession, “Bosnia war reportage, period western, East End soap opera, Ulster social comedy, glam-rock clubland, overland asylum-seeking” – the films in question being Welcome to SarajevoThe ClaimWonderlandWith or Without You24-Hour Party People and In This World. (Walker forgot I Want You, which should probably be characterised as Hastings psychosexual noir – still, somehow, a genre of one.) “Bewildering,” Walker concluded: “at the same time, curiously courageous for a British director.”

***

Winterbottom has continued in this bewilderingly courageous way, combining speed with variety, adding to his genre hoard and keeping the operation small. While former collaborators such as Rachel Weisz and Kate Winslet have been starring in globetrotting thrillers and 3D blockbusters, or, in the case of Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Peter Capaldi, playing Doctor Who, Winterbottom has carried on telling intimate tales about what he calls “home, family, things like that”; among them Everyday, a drama about a struggling mother (played by Shirley Henderson) that was shot over five years. Where his near contemporary Danny Boyle went off to make Slumdog Millionaire, Winterbottom made Trishna, an Indian adaptation of Tess, described by its star, Freida Pinto, who was also the lead actress in Slumdog, as “a hardcore independent project”.

Generally, his dealings with the US have been marked by resistance. On its release in 1997, Harvey Weinstein’s company Miramax distributed Welcome to Sarajevo – even screened it at the White House for Bill Clinton. But when Weinstein offered Winterbottom $1.5m to direct Good Will Hunting the director said the script wasn’t good enough. It took him months of conversations with the novelist John Irving to reach the same conclusion about another Miramax project, The Cider House Rules. (Each film won an Oscar for its screenplay.) Winterbottom didn’t make a film on American soil until 2009, when he went to Oklahoma to shoot The Killer Inside Me, a thriller whose violence against female characters prompted outrage and earned him a nomination for the Sexist Pig Award from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. (He lost out to Mel Gibson.)

On two occasions – both before the sexist pig accusation – he had been approached by women bearing offers too good to refuse. In 2004 Angelina Jolie brought him A Mighty Heart, an adaptation of Mariane Pearl’s memoir about her husband, the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl. Then, a few years later, Naomi Klein approached him to make an archival documentary based on The Shock Doctrine, her book about disaster capitalism. (Klein later changed her mind about the format – she wanted something more topical and responsive – and the film was made without her input.) But on the whole, the ideas for Winterbottom’s films have emerged from Revolution Films, the production company he started with Andrew Eaton in 1994.

In 2001 Winterbottom and Eaton were developing a project about illegal immigrants but couldn’t decide on a starting point. Then the 9/11 attacks happened, and within a few weeks Winterbottom and the writer Tony Grisoni were wandering around a refugee camp in Peshawar, looking for young Afghan men willing to play a version of themselves and do the trip to London for real. (“I thought it was going to be in English,” David Thompson, one of the executive producers of the film that emerged from the trip, recalled. “I was somewhat surprised when it came back in Pashto.”)

The year 2003 marked the high point of Winterbottom’s acclaim. In February, barely a year after Winterbottom had touched down in Peshawar, In This World – the asylum film’s eventual title – was accepted to show at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won three prizes, including the Golden Bear. When it was released in Britain, the critic Sukhdev Sandhu, who was born in 1970, called it the best British film of his lifetime. Soon afterwards, Winterbottom appeared in a Guardian critics’ poll of the best directors currently practising. The citation announced: “British cinema would be lost without him.”

Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian critic who wrote that citation, has been less impressed with the films he has made in the past decade. “It’s all very good letting narrative and all those traditional things go hang,” he said recently, “but it does make for a rather miscellaneous experience in the cinema.” He described the films’ “rough-and-ready quality”, which he identifies in all Winterbottom’s recent work except for The Killer Inside Me and The Trip, as “more lax than loose”, and added: “I often wonder whether he’s thinking about the next project.”

Eaton identifies misunderstanding in both criticisms. To the idea that Winterbottom’s work since around Wonderland has been lax or slapdash: “Do you have any idea how hard it is to make stuff as natural as that, to have that flow?” To those who say Winterbottom makes too many films: “If Michael was a plumber, and you asked him to do work on your house, he wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, I’m far too creatively exhausted, I couldn’t possibly do it.’ It’s just the next job.”

Thompson offered a more matter-of-fact reflection. “That’s just the way he works –he does these things in a white heat,” said. “He’s finished them before you realise he has shot them. It’s like writing a song. Some film-makers spend two years fiddling with a film. Michael would go crazy. And I don’t think the result would be any better.” (Bradshaw conceded that “part of his mojo is to keep moving – something we critics don’t understand”.)

Thompson added, “Some of his films work better than others – he knows that.” In 1997, when he had made four films, ­Winterbottom reflected on the benefit that Ingmar Bergman derived from a hefty back-catalogue: “There’s actually enough volume that if he does a comedy that doesn’t succeed, it’s merely a blip in the overall work.”

***

A few days after I first interviewed Winterbottom, I went to the Revolution Films office in Clerkenwell, central London, to meet Melissa Parmenter, the composer who is now his regular producer (Eaton serves as an executive producer). Parmenter has a fondness for rhyme: “totes mahotes”, “okey-dokey”, “good plan, Stan”. Instead of “meltdown”, she says “granny panic”. She described Michael Nyman’s music for Wonderland, not inaccurately, as “an insane score – the best score ever”.

At first, Winterbottom and Parmenter, who live together and have a four-year-old son, seem an unlikely partnership. Where Winterbottom can be evasive, perhaps defensive, Parmenter is open and unguarded. She seems clearer about who Winterbottom is than he is. She is also more outwardly passionate. During my talk with Winterbottom, he used the word “love” twice – about Nyman’s music and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller. Parmenter, by contrast, said she “loves”, among other things, The Killer Inside MeGenova, “the melancholy bits of The Trip to Italy”, Nyman, and “the fact that Michael does what he wants”. But under the Noughties colloquialisms and granny-panic veneer, Parmenter is grounded and – to use a phrase that she might – on it, a total convert to Winterbottom’s heads-down ethos. She resembles her own description of Tracey Emin, whose 2004 film Top Spot she produced: “She looked like she had no idea what she was doing, but she knew totally what she was doing.”

“We make quite different films,” she told me. “It’s weird. What’s Michael’s most commercial film? But he doesn’t aim for that. He just makes what he wants to make.”

I asked Parmenter why he is so good at winning permission to do that. “Well, the idea of all his films is interesting. I mean, Road to Guantanamo: who wouldn’t want to see the story of the Tipton Three? It’s got to be made. Or 9 Songs – we’re going to show real sex. Filming Everyday over five years – that’s an amazing idea. We went to Tessa Ross at Channel 4 and said, ‘We’re going to film these people doing nothing.’ She said, ‘Here’s £1.1m. Bye!’ Obviously we reported back to them.”

It must help, I said, that there hadn’t been any disasters.

“That’s down to Michael. He’s so aware of all levels of the film-making process. He’s got his fingers in all the pies. It gets a bit much sometimes. [As Winterbottom told me, “When you’re a director, everything that happens is kind of your fault.”] But if you’re doing a small film, you can’t say, ‘Actors aren’t allowed trailers’ – if there’s a trailer even anywhere near, he goes mental – and then turn around and say, ‘I don’t want to know anything about the budget.’”

When I caught up with Winterbottom last summer, he expressed some frustration that The Emperor’s New Clothes – the documentary with Russell Brand – hadn’t been shown more widely, and that The Face of an Angel – the Amanda Knox drama– had been rounded on by British critics. Yet it was clear that his heart wasn’t really in it: both films were well on their way to becoming past obsessions. He’d been up at 6.30 that morning, doing rewrites for a new project, Russ and Roger Go Beyond, a comedy starring Will Ferrell, about the making of Russ Meyer’s camp musical Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. (I asked if Ferrell was someone he knew socially and he replied: “No, strangely not.”) Although the script originated in Hollywood and the production, based in Los Angeles, would almost certainly involve trailers, Winterbottom talked about Russ and Roger less as a necessary commercial compromise (“the money isn’t vastly better”) than as a much-needed break. He reminded me that “developing a film from scratch comes with a burden of effort”.

Still, it turned out that his heart wasn’t really in that one, either. Just before the end of the year, he quit. Someone muttered something about creative differences. Burdensome or not, it seems he prefers success – and failure – on his own terms: working under the Revolution banner with a small, familiar crew and room for improvisation with actors he calls friends. It is said he’s getting ready to shoot The Trip to Spain.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?