Versus and For
September 1, 2016 § 1 Comment
They call us baby boomers because we were born when the birth rate peaked in the years after the Second World War (highest in 1946-1947). The phrase has become a shorthand resentfully labelling us a privileged generation. Yet the point of what benefited us – the welfare state, the NHS, greater access to education, university maintenance grants and no fees – was to erode privilege, to foster equality, by investing in children as well as infrastructure. The hero of that hour was Clement Attlee, the first Labour leader to win an overall majority, in the landslide of 1945.
Strictly speaking, he was a great reforming prime minister rather than a socialist. I wouldn’t attempt to unravel the strands of Labour-movement history knitted into that word, but it surprised me to see the description ‘democratic socialist’ on the Labour Party membership card I received last September when, along with so many others taking that unforeseen step, I joined for the first time, after Jeremy Corbyn’s election. I’d assumed that the designation must have been abandoned once Tony Blair extirpated Clause 4 from the party manifesto.
Corbyn’s election released a whirlwind of hope, not because he’s a saviour, but because until that moment the Labour Party held out only the dispiriting prospect of Blairite business as usual, the atrophied politics of the dogma that to win elections you had to pander to Middle England and resemble the Tories. How can a party call itself ‘democratic socialist’ and subscribe to the neoliberal project launched by Margaret Thatcher, how can it continue to support Tory cuts and fail to oppose the loss of workers’ rights?
We left-wing baby boomers ought to remember how that road was taken, from the promise of 1945 to 1997 and a Labour Party establishment no longer committed to any kind of equality. But time tarnishes long memories. Mine was refreshed from an unexpected source last weekend when I watched a BBC2 film I’d recorded from a month earlier: ‘Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach’ (directed by Louise Osmond). I’d expected a straightforward celebration of Loach’s achievements. What I saw was more interesting than that.
When Loach and his collaborator Tony Garnett started working at the BBC in the early 60s their dramas about working-class experience were ground-breaking. Cathy Come Home provoked a wide debate about homelessness. Kes became a classic. Versus opens with Loach’s words: ‘If you say how the world is, that should be enough. Just the sense of simple connection between people. Just being.… Politics is the essence of drama, the essence of conflict.’ This faith in a direct rendering of people’s lives, an emotional realism that will in itself reveal the truth about the world, has often been the strength of his work. Sometimes, however, it is not enough.
The Loach films I like tend to have a light, humorous touch: the elements of comic farce in Riff Raff, set on a building site and starring Ricky Tomlinson; The Angel’s Share, which offers the age-old pleasures of a folktale where the resourceful poor outwit the wealthy – it’s also an antidote to the idea of ‘Scotland’ as commodity, its Highlands and Islands and prestige whiskies peddled by grouse-shooting Anglo-Scots lairds for Trump dollars.
Less successful are the films that tackle politics on a momentous scale: the Spanish Civil War and the Irish struggle for independence. Interviewed in Versus, the actor Cillian Murphy talks about the ‘raw emotion’ that Loach aimed for in The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Alas, in this film and in Land and Freedom the emotional emphasis overwhelms and confuses, so that their didactic purpose is undone, even though the audience may be moved to tears as they leave the cinema. They only affirm what we already know and feel. I can’t help but compare Loach’s methods with the work of the Liège-based Dardenne brothers (Two Days, One Night; L’Enfant; The Kid with the Bike) also didactic in approach, but more distanced, where rhythm and editing create gaps for viewers to form their own questions and construct meaning. Theirs is a quieter realism that encourages intellectual breathing space.
For all that, Loach is greatly loved across the Channel, winning sundry awards at Cannes and elsewhere. Perhaps what they specifically love is the typically English absence of philosophical intent, coupled with an un-English emotional charge. Abroad he is seen as a hero because of the enormous difficulties he has faced over censorship of his documentaries and dramas, deemed too partisan within the narrow range of judgement and opinion we still see in the media today.
Irrespective of my criticisms, I have to acknowledge Loach’s unique and important place in British filmmaking and on the British left. This map of his life as a director tortuously parallels the course of post-war politics and its relationship to culture. Who’d have thought that at the low point in his career, when his work went uncommissioned or rejected, he would be reduced to making commercials (for Caramac and McDonald’s!). ‘Me berating other people for betrayal, and I’ve done that’ he says, shamefaced.
Versus is an honest film, penetrating about the man and his politics. When it came to betrayal he could indeed be ruthlessly unsparing towards those who failed him. In his own work he shunned the concessions that might have made it more acceptable. He has always been tenacious.
Tony Garnett talks about Loach’s collaboration on documentaries with the writer Jim Allen, and his concordance with Allen’s view: ‘He knew about the betrayals of trade-union bureaucrats, that the role of the Labour Party was to deliver the working class to betrayal’. These are strong words, but it’s easy to forget that in the devastating climate of the early Thatcher years, many trade union leaders were despotic right-wingers at odds with their left-wing membership; some were instrumental in the banning of Loach’s 1983 television series ‘Questions of Leadership’. This was also the period when under Kinnock’s baleful leadership Labour Party democracy was being diminished through rulebook changes and the expulsion of left-wingers, tactics similar to those wielded today by the hierarchy against the leadership.
That was a different world, a different working-class. Trade union defeats and anti-union legislation sapped membership, industries died and the nature of employment changed. Even young people understand this, but the savagery of those times begins to fade from memory; and those of us who lived through them may prefer not to remember. The miners’ strike marked a final defeat. 30 years later, in 2014, Pride, a film directed by Matthew Warchus, took us back to it, fictionalising the events of a real alliance between London gay activists and striking Welsh miners. It had audiences weeping everywhere, not just from sorrow, but from fresh pride, making the film’s title multiply apt. Cinema can be powerful in all sorts of ways.
Fractured, neglected, super-exploited and under-represented it may be, but there is still a working-class. It took the same 30 years for the first of the upheavals to wake the Labour Party from sleepwalking over a precipice. That was the Scottish referendum in 2014. Scotland, where the party had its earliest socialist roots, came close to choosing independence in a vote boosted not so much by the nationalism that’s used as excuse and explanation, but by rejection of the Westminster stalemate: Tory rule and an official opposition to the right of the SNP. It was in the Labour heartlands of the Glasgow region and Clydeside that the Yes vote was strongest, and that choice was reflected again in the SNP’s election victory last year.
Scotland had had enough of Blair and Brown’s Labour and was unimpressed by Miliband’s diluted version. Last September Corbyn’s election as leader laid down a full-blown challenge to what had become the Blairite orthodoxy. It came from all quarters: veteran Labour members who had been loyal to the party’s socialist roots and many who had left it because of Blair and now saw a reason to return, as well as a great many new adherents, including baby boomers who had never joined before, because we hadn’t seen it as a genuine force for fundamental change – in the wake of 1968 we allied ourselves with the New Left and the sundry movements that blossomed from it.
Shocking as they are, the anti-Corbyn dirty tricks and the current repertoire of viciousness strike me as predictable. Behind them are figures who counted on having taken possession of something that has never truly belonged to them. They’re still hanging on and they’ve shown that they have no scruples. Hence what amounts to an internal civil war. It’s depressing, but there is surely cause for hope that solidarity can break through the battle lines within the party and flower again. Then we can take on the real enemy.