1945 was a watershed year in post-war British history. Not only did it mark the end of World War Two but it also saw the humiliating defeat of wartime leader Winston Churchill in the landslide victory of a Labour Government.
Nobody predicted a Tory defeat. Indeed, the mainstream media and the entire British Establishment were certain that the war hero would remain in No 10 Downing Street.
The unexpected victory of Prime Minister Clement Attlee is the subject of the latest film by award-winning British filmmaker Ken Loach.
Called The Spirit of ’45, the film received a NSW premiere at the locally owned Regent Cinema (proprietors Maria Barbieri and Ken Rippin) in the far northern city of Murwillumbah.
An audience of more than 70 Northern Rivers cinema-goers, mainly friends we’ve made since moving here in 2007, attended; and none was disappointed.
The screening was followed by a discussion which roamed over politics, cinema, photography and the state of the world.
Ken’s message to the audience was read out prior to the film:
“The achievements of the 1945 Labour Government in Britain have largely been written out of our history. From near economic collapse we took leading industries into public ownership and established the Welfare State.
“Generosity, mutual support and co-operation were the watch words of the age. It is time to remember the determination of those who were intent on building a better world.
“I’m delighted the film has reached an Australian audience and that you will make the connections in what is a shared experience.”
During his pre-elections tours, crowds turned out to cheer Churchill. After one visit to a factory town, the Daily Express headline read: “War workers hail the war winner”. A couple of weeks later they voted against him in droves.
The essential difference was this: Churchill and his Tories stood for the monied Establishment and the restoration of the old order while Labour projected a “new Jerusalem” of government of the people, for the people, by the people.
The working class had experienced the full horror of World War One and the wretched poverty, hunger and deprivation of the Great Depression and World War Two: there was no way they were going to allow the Tories to reincarnate that cruel existence.
Vote for Them
The Fleet Street press – The Times, The Telegraph, Daily Express and Daily Mail – raucously backed Churchill. The pro-Labour Daily Mirror simply said: “Vote for Them.” i.e. the servicemen and servicewomen who had fought the war at home and abroad.
The Mirror’s election day editorial said: “For five long years the lusty youth of this great land has bled and died. From Berlin to Burma, through desert and jungle, on the seas and in the air, they have fought and are fighting still for you. Vote for Them.”
And they did.
On the eve of the election the Express was completely delusional, carrying a headline: “LATE SWING TO TORIES” – when the swing had already gone the other way!
In the event, Labour won by a majority of 157 seats.
The Express headline on the day of Labour’s victory was:
“The National Socialists” (i.e. The Nazis).
The 1945 experience proved that the combined weight of the Tory media isn’t enough to sway the public once its collective mind is made up.
Chifley and the Spirit of ’46
So it proved in Australia a year later when Prime Minister Ben Chifley faced Bob Menzies, whose newly-founded Liberal Party had teamed up with the Country Party to form a Coalition of the rich.
Against the unanimous scaremongering of the Liberals, the bunyip aristocracy and the press in every capital city, the pipe-smoking train driver from Bathurst won the election.
Launching Labor’s campaign Chifley said:
“I urge the people to unite in a stirring effort to retain the Labor Government. You, the people, entrusted Labor when all others had failed to save the country in the face of the enemy. You, the people, can trust Labor to win the peace for the greater happiness and prosperity of all men, women and children in our fair land and for the secured welfare of those generations to come.”
By the time he left office – defeated by Menzies in 1949 – Chifley had secured the following achievements: free hospitalisation, the Australian National University (ANU), the Snowy River Scheme, the Australian National Airlines (ANA) legislation, the establishment of the first Department of Immigration and much more.
Loach has stirred history, politics and passion with his filmmaking over the past 50 years. The Spirit of ’45 is a searing reminder of how things once were and that the future is the hands of each generation.