Party like its 1945

by Elias Blum


My generation is arguably the first in modern Western history to have a lower standard of living than its predecessors. Thirty years of doctrinaire neo-liberal policies have resulted in the rise of corporate oligarchy, the corruption of democracy, the thinning of the middle class, the erosion of the public services on which we collectively rely, the destruction of the welfare state, the replacement of public ethics with market values, and the predictable return of genuine poverty (i.e. cannot afford to eat poverty) as a reality for millions of people.

Add to this a paranoid, repressive, security-obsessed government bent on silencing dissent, perpetual war, environmental degradation, resource depletion, over-population, globalisation and its discontents, and there’s no wonder that the apathy, anger and cynicism dominate so much of what passes for public discourse. We are in a sorry state of affairs, from which only a complete change of course, direction and purposes can rescue us.

Such political repentance, requiring an honest acknowledgement of past failures and a sincere and unswerving resolve not to repeat them, is hard. But such changes of direction can happen: in the USA in 1932, with the election of FDR and the start of the New Deal, in the Labour victory in the UK in 1945, and more generally in the post-war reconstruction of Western Europe, we saw examples of democratic renewal, motivated by a loving and inclusive commitment to the well-being of ordinary people.

As Ken Loach’s new film suggests, it’s time to recover the Spirit of 1945. But if we are provide a compelling, attractive and achievable vision for the future, it also necessary to learn the lessons of 1945, and to identify where the Labour  Party went wrong.

The Labour government of 1945 was an imperial government with resolutely centralising tendencies. Social Democracy UK-style was heavy-handed, top-down, bureaucratic, restrictive and old-fashioned. The man in Whitehall knew best. There was a great gain in equality and security, but not much local liberty or participatory voice. The 1945-1979 settlement addressed material needs, but it never had much of a grasp of the importance of citizenship, democracy, and self-government.*

It failed, above all, to understand subsidiarity: rather than seeing the role of that state as being to provide a just framework within which the various ‘little platoons’ could co-operatively regulate themselves, it attempted to impose centralised, one-size-fits-all solutions that crushed difference and stifled initiative.

Subsidiarity is a system of power-sharing that requires respect for the vital role of intermediate organisations, which mediate between the individual and the central state: the family, the churches, voluntary organisations, trade unions, businesses, autonomous universities, political parties, the local community, and City, County and regional governments.

Subsidiarity does not mean, of course, that the central state can abdicate its responsibility for the promotion of social justice. It certainly does not mean cutting redistributive spending and relying on private charity to pick up the inevitable pieces. On the contrary, state care for those who are weak, vulnerable, poor, unable to work, or otherwise in need of support, should be a universal priority, and there is a need for an active and progressive state which will accept its responsibility for regulating, supporting, enabling, co-ordinating, and above all, in funding, the range of efforts aimed at promoting social justice and the common good.

It does mean, however, that to be effective, state support must be: (i) flexibly delivered by those who understand local and personal needs, and, (ii) augmented (augmented, not replaced) by a variety of non-state or para-state forms of social co-operation. Only such a local, human-scale, face-to-face, dispersed and democratic approach to welfare can encourage co-ownership of the welfare system and so promote a stronger ethic of mutuality and responsibility.

Ultimately, an effective welfare state must be embodied in the values of a welfare society. An effective welfare state is practically impossible to achieve, and politically impossible to sustain, unless it reflects and embodies a wider social consensus of solidarity, rooted in the belief that everyone is precious, that we each have an obligation to love and serve one another. That consensus of solidarity, borne of poverty, struggle and war, is what made the spirit of 1945 possible.

What can make it possible again? What can restore the bonds of society eroded by Thatcher’s market materialism? I don’t know. I can look only at the great ritual of solidarity and mutualism played out week by week in strange, damp, gloomy old buildings up and down the country, where the rich and poor, young and old, educated and uneducated, healthy and sick, all come together around one table to share an equal ration of bread and wine. The church, in its eucharistic rituals, offers a pale, glimmering premonition of what solidarity might look like. When the church engages in practical social action – whether it is running a food back or providing daycare – it is meeting real, immediate needs, and thereby alleviating present distress, but it is also acting as a school of co-operation, as a training ground for solidarity, and as a great experiment in mutualism.

The church is not unique in this respect. The lessons of solidarity and of mutuality can be learned wherever people work together, sharing labours for common ends, whether that is in a secular charity, a neighbourhood improvement group, an allotment association, a trade union, a political party, a community council, or a protest group.

Nevertheless, if, as they say the Labour Party owed more to Methodism than Marxism, maybe we should be looking for the new ‘Spirit of 1945’ in that most unlikely and troublesome of spiritual places, the local church.

(Ah, who am I kidding?)

* This aggressive, uniform centralism, combined with a complete lack of concern for civil liberties and the constitutional distribution of power, is one of the very many reasons why, although I’m economically on the left, I’ve always voted for the Greens, the Liberals, or more recently the SNP, and never had much to do with the Labour party.