Among the sailors returning victorious from the fight against Fascism in 1945 in the opening scenes of Ken Loach’s documentary film Spirit of 45 would somewhere have been my Uncle Harry and Uncle Jack, each of whom had done years of service in the navy during World War Two. And I imagine that both of my young Uncles-to-be were as keen on a Labour electoral victory, as determined that this country would not go back to the slums and unemployment of the 1930s, as all the other returning servicemen and women in Loach’s film. There was much rousing celebration in this wonderful documentary of Labour’s post-war achievements – the creation of the National Health Service, nationalisation of mines and railways, the building of council houses and new towns – but there were, importantly, some dissenting voices from the Left too. The creation of the National Coal Board actually meant ‘the same old gang back in power’, one ex-miner wryly remarked; ‘we are defending a flawed project’, commented a historian, and Tony Benn offered some astute critical thoughts on top-down reform too.
It was surely one of the greatest prophetic achievements of William Morris’s political imagination to have offered us just such a critique of the Welfare State fifty years before its actual formation, when he pondered in 1893 ‘whether the Society of Inequality might not accept the quasi-socialist machinery above mentioned, and work it for the purpose of upholding that society in a somewhat shorn condition, maybe, but a safe one ... The workers better treated, better organized, helping to govern themselves, but with no more pretence to equality with the rich, nor any more hope for it than they have now’. The achievements of Clement Attlee's 1945 Labour government look all the more precious and poignant, now that so many of them have been destroyed by neo-liberalism from Thatcher onwards; but they were, in Morris’s own term, ‘State socialism’, not socialism proper as he understood it. And we will have to come up with a vision beyond them, a prospective rather than retrospective politics – Spirit of 2045 rather than 1945 – if we are ever to turn that neo-liberal tide.