Ken Loach’s documentary message is all too familiar to Ed Miliband and David Cameron but all three make the same mistaken assumption, and fail to grapple with the issue of declining community.
Yesterday I watched Ken Loach’s latest documentary ‘The Spirit of ‘45’ which on one hand celebrates British resilience and spirit at home in the face of two crippling wars, and on the other hand regrets the forces which Roach argues, thwarted and eroded the values of the common good and social responsibility. What Loach offers is a combination of nostalgia for this past sense of fraternity and community, with a misplaced and romantic attribution of this departure to the influence and policies of Margaret Thatcher and neoliberalism.
Loach makes this argument by juxtaposing the climate and the social attitudes in the face of fascism and poverty, caused by the crippling cost of two wars, with the post-1979 peacetime values which focused on prosperity, individualism, and moral decline. In doing so Loach feeds the same socialist myth that community died under Thatcher when in fact this decline happened far before Thatcher came to prominence.
Although some of Thatcher’s rhetoric and policy did not help to reverse this trend , the assumption is a staggering misrepresentation of history. The truth is the spirit of ’45 which Loach alludes to, declined in the years immediately after the war.
One consideration ignored in the documentary is that war united the country in a way which was very unique. In the years of peace which followed, the external threat of fascism departed and the force which instilled this sense of solidarity naturally declined. A second consideration neglected by Loach and others on the Left is that in the years post-1945, the size of the government rapidly increased. Government began to take over the responsibility and provision of services and responsibilities taken up by individuals and communities in wartime society. Inevitably the wartime national spirit naturally declined in the wake of these two factors.
So how can the spirit of ’45 be revised? This is something both David Cameron and Ed Miliband have talked about and have each respectably have talked big in the past about restoring, albeit by framing the problem in a different way, yet both have failed to varying degree to match this talk with concrete ideas and policy.
There is no doubt that the ‘45 spirit had vast benefits. During the war individuals and communities stepped up to the plate and to the challenges Britain faced at home. They took vast responsibility for the provision of services. Mutual aid and social solidarity in this sense, bought out the very best in the national community. Circumstance pushed wide scale civic association.
In this respect the biggest enemy to the ’45 spirit wasn’t the end of the war and the peace which developed, rather it was big government. With the rise of government into the social provision, people inevitably took on a smaller, more passive and less of a responsible role in the welfare and maintenance of communities. This, along with the declining relevance of other institutions which instil moral and social fabric, such as the Church, inevitably oversaw the erosion of the wartime civic association and prior community spirit which modern Britain was built upon.
In this respect civic association has been left in a miserable and powerless state. History determines that social trends cannot usually be reversed, but rather they must be transformed. It isn’t through looking to the past that the problem of civic association’s declining prevalence and influence over public life can be answered. New institutions and new ideas are needed to restore social cohesion in a modern world of secularism, individualism and passive consumerism. The only way to combat this going forward, surely is David Cameron’s Big Society.
David Cameron’s Big Society is an attempt to revive civic association and people power. Whilst the idea is spot on, the application has struggled to materialise. One reason for this is the Big Society has not been backed up with sufficient and meaningful policies. The agenda has been put on hold whilst the emphasis is on restoring Britain’s finances and faltering economy.
Another problem with the Big Society is that it is operationally flawed. This is because whilst the Big Society seeks to restore strong community, it is being driven as a central government initiative. A truly Big Society arises organically from the bottom up, not from central government downwards. David Cameron is in the wrong sector if he wants to achieve such social transformation.
The notion of the Big Society has in application been confused with localism. The Coalition has a wide-ranging programme which is devolving powers from central government to local authorities. Whilst this is a positive move, it is not the same as enabling freer license for individuals to assume increased responsibility over social provision. Returning powers to local government from central government still keeps provisions under the remit of government, not communities.
Social institutions have to be empowered, or more importantly, social institutions must not be further undermined and eroded by forces of central government, aggressive secularism and unchecked individualism. In a world where government influence is unaccountable to community institutions which prosperity and wellbeing were once built upon, government, whether socialist or conservative, is not where the solution to social decline lies. Community thrives in spite of government, not because of it.
So whilst the spirit of ’45 can never be revised in peacetime and prosperous Britain, civic association can grow again when fostered under the right conditions. These conditions have been eroded by the Postwar big government and by Thatcher’s centralised government and emphasis on individualism. As well intended as the Big Society is, it just simply cannot be restored through government initiative, a reality that both David Cameron and Ken Loach lament and share difficulty finding a way to explain and resolve.