How impossible it would be today: the creation of a welfare state in Britain where extreme social inequality is the norm. In his film The Spirit of ’45, released yesterday, Ken Loach tells the extraordinary story of that year, when Churchill, who had led this country through its “darkest hours”, was soundly defeated in the election that saw Clement Attlee, the determined Putney boy, ushered into Downing Street. Britain was exhausted. There was very little food; there was huge debt; the pleasantries of life which wartime had dried up were still just a memory. And yet, within five short years, the new government managed to transform the nation into something that resembled a socialist democracy.
In the January 1947 edition of The Picture Post, the outline of a welfare state is clearly laid out: free healthcare, free schooling, housing, the promise of work and security if you are unable to earn. The public utility companies were nationalised. They belonged to us. It was nothing short of a revolution. Even when the Tories returned to power in 1950, they did not change the new status quo. It was to be the world I grew up in, one where social mobility prevailed and the gap between the pay of the banker, doctor and schoolteacher was nothing to be remarked on.
I assumed that some version of this would last forever but, like most people, I bargained without Mrs Thatcher. “This idea had been bouncing around my head for some time,” Loach says. “I was asked if I would do an archive documentary. I think it’s apposite now. We are now in the midst of a great depression and a recession – as we were at the end of the 1930s. There is a large amount of anger at the cuts and at the destruction of the NHS. You wonder, as the remnants of a civilised society are destroyed, whether people might consider an alternative.”
Would they? In my work as Boris Johnson’s food adviser (I chair the London Food Board), I became aware of the startling rise of food banks about a year ago. I started to meet children who were coming to school having had nothing to eat since the night before, and in many cases all they had even then were chips and ketchup, or a doughy cheap pizza. I talked to teachers who said that some of their pupils were so distraught with hunger that they could barely sit still. No one takes any responsibility for this; instead, what we tell ourselves are the old truths of the world of a welfare state. “Everyone has enough money to buy enough food” is one popular myth. “Everyone can get a good education and rise from the top to bottom.” Both assumptions are as untrue as the oft-quoted mantra by politicians that “we are in all this together”.
After the war, there was indeed an overwhelming sense of “all being in this together”. Families collectively had suffered the deaths of loved ones and no amount of money could protect you from the terrors of the Blitz. These shared horrors spawned the need to make a better world, for all. But the horrors of today are not shared. As George Osborne puts the final touches to next week’s Budget, I wonder if he considers what it might be like to be forced to make a choice between paying the electricity bill to keep your family warm, or being able to afford something to eat. No politician has a clue what it is like to have to go to bed at 8pm in the winter because you’re too cold to do anything else. No politician knows what it is like to be a teenager who has no money at all, unless their mother can spare a pound or two from the child benefit, so you hang out on street corners because there is nowhere else to go.
I am friends with a woman called Angela who lives in Crystal Palace. She escaped a brutal marriage, lived in a hostel for two months and was moved to her council flat last August. She has two teenage children and a little baby of four months. In all that time, Angela and the kids have lived, slept and eaten in their living room because their three tiny bedrooms have been so damp that they all got ill if they spent more than 10 minutes upstairs. It was horrendous: huge black mushrooms of damp covering every surface. They have a broken chest of drawers. There is no wardrobe: their clothes are in black plastic bags on the floor. And there they might have stayed, on their allocated spaces on their two double beds, Angela fighting depression, her teenage daughter struggling with eating disorders, her intelligent teenage son studying to pass his science exams so he can be a doctor – because the social services in that area had not the money, time or resource to help. If it had not been for Kids Company, which took one look at the situation and set about fixing it, Angela and her family might well have quietly rotted away.
Meanwhile, through my letter box in west London come endless appeals to send money to children who are hungry and traumatised in other parts of the world.
Angela believes that our society sees the poor as almost criminal. I’m not sure that criminal is the right word. But there is no doubt that we do not want to know about what is happening under the surface of our society and that we hate the poor because they show us so clearly how unfair and unjust Britain has become. Far easier to deny our Angelas, telling ourselves that she is the architect of her own misfortune because, thanks to welfare, everyone in Britain has excellent life chances. In 1945, Angela’s father might have served on the battlefield alongside members of the ruling class. Now, our society’s battlefields are inhabited by only one class of people: the very poor and the very disadvantaged.