As Ken Loach's film on post-war Britain shows, the Spirit of ’45 has been lost in our age of austerity

The post-war Britain we really were "all in it together". The new government transformed Britain into a fairer society where social mobility prevailed

view gallery VIEW GALLERY
Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Forget charging by the page - with books, heart matters more than heft

Katy Guest
Nai or Oxi: whether Greece says Yes or No today its citizens will continue to struggle  

Greece crisis: Referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its lack of genuine legitimacy

Rupert Cornwell
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test