It was politically astute of Ken Loach, the director of The Wind That Shakes the Barley, to tell the judges at the Cannes Film Festival that his film should be seen as a metaphorical attack on the US invasion of Iraq. While I suspect that French luvviedom is not greatly exercised by the Irish War of Independence, anything that depicts the Americans - by analogy with the Black and Tans - as nothing but murderous thugs definitely hits the spot.
It is true that some among the British military did unspeakable things in Ireland, just as it is true that some American soldiers have committed atrocities in Iraq. But the important thing to realise about Ken Loach is that almost everything he has ever done as an artist - I exclude his excellent early work on Z Cars - is designed to further the overthrow of the capitalist system.
For many years, Mr Loach has been associated with the Fourth International, the Trotskyite movement formed during the Second World War (which it calls the "second imperialist war"). When in 2002 the affiliated International Socialist Group launched its magazine Socialist Resistance, it carried comradely "greetings from Ken Loach". In that first issue, the ISG described itself as "a revolutionary socialist organisation committed to the overthrow of the barbaric capitalist system". In a later issue it ran a piece by Mr Loach, the second paragraph of which begins "As I write, it is the anniversary of the October Revolution." You know, the Bolshevik one that launched the collectivisation of agriculture and the death by starvation of millions of peasants who were thereby saved from the misery and exploitation of private ownership.
Most recently, Ken Loach has affiliated himself with George Galloway's Respect movement, although the two men apparently came close to a break over Galloway's decision to appear on Celebrity Big Brother. As I understand it, Loach's irritation was not so much with Galloway's degrading performance as with the fact that the Respect MP had not consulted the comrades in the proper fashion beforehand.
I don't mean to suggest that Ken Loach's film can be dismissed simply because of his political opinions, but it is my observation that hard-line Marxists see historical truth as merely a convenient weapon in the class war. In Loach's socialist realism, the IRA represent the victims of class struggle and are therefore all heroes, while the British soldiers represent the ruling elite and are therefore all brutes. Real history is much more complicated - and much more interesting.
It might not carry off the Palme D'Or at Cannes, but I wish someone would make a film which addresses the really important question about the "physical force tradition" in Irish politics. Why was it that so many backed the IRA's campaign of systematic murder of policemen and "collaborators" when the terms that were accepted by the Irish in 1921 had been largely available from the British in 1914, when the First World War intervened?
Unlike Ken Loach, the Irish themselves are beginning to question their past in a rigorous manner. Last year the decapitation of the Dublin statue of the Sinn Fein "hero" Sean Russell led to a national debate on the historical role of the IRA. In Berlin in 1940, Russell had plotted on behalf of the IRA to join "Operation Sealion", the German High Command's planned attack on the British Isles. War News, the official IRA publication , declared that "If German forces should invade Ireland they will land as friends and liberators." When George Bernard Shaw pointed out that that Hitler was anti-Catholic, the IRA responded that "Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini" had shown their lack of anti-Catholic bias by helping to establish the "Catholic Government of Franco in Spain".
It has been argued that the IRA's pro-Nazi stance was based on the traditional realpolitik of "my enemy's enemy is my friend". That does not, however, explain why War News welcomed the "cleansing fire" of the German army which was driving the Jews from Europe, nor why it condemned the arrival in Ireland of "so-called Jewish refugees" - yes, the very people who had been driven out by the Nazis' "cleansing fire". Meanwhile the Sinn Fein leader JJ O'Kelly in 1940 praised Hitler for freeing Germany from the "heel" of Jewish white slave traffic. As the Irish historian Brian Hanley wrote last year after describing these events: "I wonder how the Black and Tans would have been looked at after our occupation by the SS."
It was the British Empire so loathed by Ken Loach which, under his class enemy Winston Churchill, stood up to the Nazi threat, and ultimately, therefore, helped to preserve the freedoms which he enjoys today. The same applies to the screenwriter of The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Paul Laverty, who told the film journalists at Cannes that he was especially cross with Gordon Brown for saying "that we must stop apologising for the British Empire. I have never heard anyone apologise for it."
He obviously wasn't listening to Jack Straw, who as Foreign Secretary criticised the Balfour Declaration as "not entirely honourable", said that we had played a "less than glorious" role in Afghanistan, confessed that we had made "serious mistakes" in India and Pakistan, and rounded things off by admitting that the "odd lines" of Iraq's borders "are down to the Brits."
Those are not grovelling apologies, it is true. So how about Liverpool City Council, which in 1999 said "We make an unreserved apology for the city's involvement in the slave trade and the continual effect of slavery on Liverpool's black community"? Bristol has been debating whether to make a similar apology - a debate inspired by Dr Gareth Griffiths, who happens to be the director of the City's British Empire and Commonwealth Museum. It is inconceivable that an Italian in a similar position would launch a campaign to apologise for the Roman Empire.
The idea that the British are uniquely unapologetic for their imperial past is preposterous, although again, I suspect that Mr Laverty's remarks went down well with the luvvies in Cannes. I doubt, however, that they would impress a French nationalist - or indeed the patriotic Irishman: in my experience such people reserve a particular contempt for those who travel abroad to criticise their own country.
I don't suppose it occurred to Ken Loach to thank the British people for his success at Cannes. But in a way we are responsible. The Wind That Shakes the Barley was backed by the UK Film Council, which in turn is financed by the National Lottery. A Mr James Purnell, who apparently is our "Creative Industries Minister", yesterday acclaimed Mr Loach's triumph at Cannes as an example of the beneficence of the Blair government's funding for the film industry. Given Ken Loach's visceral hatred of Blair and all his works, I hope no one drew Mr Purnell's words to the film director's attention. It's very painful to choke on champagne.Reuse content