The Spirit of '45 reminds us of the importance of political myths

Tales of what might have been and what may be to come are a powerful and resonant part of the left's appeal.

In his book Election ’45: Reflections on the revolution in Britain, which marked the 50th anniversary of the 1945 Labour government, Austin Mitchell recounts an anecdote about a 20 year-old Tony Benn. Too young to actually vote, he instead spent the campaign driving a Labour candidate around central London. On bumping into a taxi one day, Benn, never knowingly without something to say, took to the loudhailer. "You have just been struck by the Labour candidate," he announced, "and everybody cheered – they were so excited."

Such are the tales, myths even, surrounding Labour and 1945, as a grateful Britain apparently flocked to the polls to vote for socialism. Ken Loach is the latest teller of this tale in his new film, The Spirit of ‘45, recounting the massive achievements of the post-war Labour government, which included the creation of the NHS, welfare stateand full employment.

However, the polemical documentary has come in for criticism over Loach’s tendency to be economical with the facts. The historian Steven Fielding upbraided him in the Guardian last week for offering a rose-tinted version of history: "Described as a 'celebration', Loach uses his vision of the past to make blatantly contemporary political points…I fear that Loach's version of 1945 is more imagined than real: it is, for want of a better word, propaganda", he wrote.

Elected on a wave of popular enthusiasm for social and economic change, 1945 was always a chimera. In as much as it was a call for Labour measures (heavily influenced, of course, by the work of avowed liberals John Maynard Keynes and Sir William Beveridge) it was also a call for Tory men, with many hoping Churchill would remain as Prime Minister after the war.

The timeline is also instructive here. Swept to power with a majority of 145 in 1945, Labour only just held on in 1950 with a majority of five, before succumbing to the Tories just a year later. The spirit of ‘45 might have seen lasting social and economic changes, but it certainly did not usher in an age of political dominance for Labour and the left: the party was out of office for the next 13 years.

As Fielding puts it: "Loach's film should therefore be better called The Myth of '45, for it peddles a fantasy, albeit one that provides comfort during these hard times for some on the left."

None of this is to deprecate Loach’s fine film, far less the massive achievements of the Labour government, both real and embellished. Myths play an important part in our politics, serving as shorthand for big, ungainly ideas; helping inspire, provoke and, crucially, motivate voters. The promise of a better tomorrow remains essential in galvanising the voting public behind a cause.

And the left likes it myths; from the Attlee government’s pledge to build a "New Jerusalem" through to Tony Blair’s promise of "New Labour, New Britain". Grandiose claims abound, whether it was Harold Wilson boasting in 1965 that Labour had become "the natural party of government" or Gordon Brown’s oft-repeated promise of "no more boom and bust". Myths can also serve as powerful warnings too. How may variants have there been on the "1000 days/ one month/ 24 hours to save the NHS" theme?

But it’s the governing bit that usually causes problems for the left’s myth-makers."You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose" as former New York Governor Mario Cuomo famously put it. When things don’t quite live up to the romantic billing, the left has a problem sustaining itself in power, as even the sainted Attlee found out.

Labour’s 1974 manifesto, which pledged to enact a "fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families" was abandoned after just two years when IMF-imposed austerity measures, (amid the chaos of 1970’s economic stagflation) scuttled the government’s lofty ambitions. But the killing of a political dream quickly darkens into cries of betrayal. A sense that Labour had capitulated in the face of economic orthodoxy led directly to the fratricidal mayhem of the early 1980s when the party’s myth-making soared to stratospheric heights of implausibility.

It’s not just the preserve of the left though. Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalism hold to their enduring myths too. Tales of what might have been and what may be to come are a powerful and resonant part of their appeal to voters’ emotions. As, indeed, is UKIP’s retro island myth of sepia-toned Great Britain bestriding the globe as a sovereign power. Chancellor George Osborne’s own myth-making prowess was on display in the Budget as he breezily accounted for the continued failure of his 'expansionary fiscal contraction' model.

For Ed Miliband, the risk in meeting the public’s desire for a better tomorrow is that it becomes a casual promise that it will be delivered. The most dangerous mythfor him is that a Labour government would not be taking an axe to public spending right now. It would - although the party’s framing of its own approach remains a work in (painfully slow) progress. However the big problem for Labour begins after it wins in 2015; with another three years of austerity already pencilled in. Ambiguity now may lead to howls of anguish later as dreams go unfulfilled.

Governing in prose, it turns out, is not much fun.

Clement Attlee waves to well-wishers outside Transport House in London after the Labour Party's victory in the 1945 general election. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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