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. 

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Northern Ireland's election: Will Arlene Foster pay the price for a domestic scandal?

The wind is in Sinn Féin's sails. But both parties have to work together after the poll. 

Will voters use the forthcoming elections to the Northern Ireland assembly to punish ministerial incompetence?

After all, these elections are all about the Democratic Unionists’ Arlene Foster and her disastrous mishandling of the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, the energy subsidy she previously introduced as enterprise minister without putting cost controls in place, thus racking-up a £500m liability for the Northern Ireland Executive.

Her refusal to stand aside as First Minister and allow an independent investigation triggered a sequence of events that collapsed the power-sharing executive that runs Northern Ireland, necessitating this poll.

The electorate offers its verdict on Thursday.

So far, there has been a predictable rhythm to the campaign. Cautious and insular, the parties have all been here before and know how to harvest their vote. Elections in Northern Ireland are effectively a race to see who can shore up their core the most, (made harder by the overall reduction in seats from 108 to 90 across 18 multi-member constituencies).

Foster knows she is fighting for her political life. Her woeful handling of the RHI scandal, exposed her severe limitations as a politician. Brittle and stubborn, she further damaged her reputation at the DUP’s manifesto launch by refusing to take any questions from journalists on the basis she had "man flu".

Her pitch was a sectarian "Project Fear" warning that Sinn Fein might overtake the DUP as the largest party and push for an early referendum on Irish unity. Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams joked after the launch on Twitter: "Just for the record, I didn't give Arlene the flu." 

Foster’s campaign might be ugly, but in Northern Ireland’s hyper-tribal polity, it could prove effective. If the DUP suffers a reversal, however, her colleagues may yet think twice about re-nominating her for First Minister/deputy First Minister.

Meanwhile, as Sinn Féin’s new "leader in the North" Michelle O’Neill finds herself in exactly the same situation as Foster was 12 months ago at the last assembly elections - taking over from a male predecessor who had been a mainstay of the political process for years.

O’Neill is so far proving formidable. She benefits from the fact the wind is blowing in Sinn Féin’s sails. After all, the reasons for this election - the DUP’s incompetence - will play well among republicans and nationalists. 

Sinn Féin’s pitch is therefore about ensuring "equality, respect and integrity", with O’Neill claiming this is "the most important election since the Good Friday Agreement". The Shinners are pushing for the strongest possible mandate in what O’Neill describes as the "short, sharp negotiation" that will take place after the elections. She says she doesn’t want a new agreement, "just the implementation of previous ones".

In terms of the other parties, Mike Nesbitt, a former television journalist turned leader of the Ulster Unionists, deserves credit for trying to appeal beyond the tribe. He has offered his second preference vote to the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party. Tactically, he has to try something to dislodge the UUP from the political sediment.

Both the UUP and SDLP are essentially fighting for relevance in these elections. They constantly claim the electorate has had enough of the SF-DUP duopoly and wants change, it’s just that the voters never vote for it. 

Following Thursday’s results comes the hard bargaining, if the parties are to get power-sharing up and running again and avoid a period of direct rule from the Northern Ireland Office. Both Foster and O’Neill need to be seen to strike a hard bargain. Foster will be desperate to claim she is still in control of events. O’Neill, the newcomer, will want to show she is no pushover.

If she is smart, Foster will  push for an early restoration of the executive and try to put this mess behind her. If, on the other hand, there is a lengthy delay, the election could become a running sore. After all, as the DUP may yet have to be reminded, power-sharing lies at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement

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