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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.

Clement Attlee waves to well-wishers outside Transport House in London.
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.

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.

Tags:Labour