Thursday, 26 December 2013

the spirit of 45: what's missing

ah, it's been too long a break from blogging.  a couple of reasons.  mostly because my life hasn't really slowed down after the local body elections.  i think that's possibly part of a coping mechanism on my part - i cope with life a lot better when i'm busy & don't have too much time to think.  i do realise this is an "issue", a problem that i should deal with in some way, but who has the time for that, right?

it's also because central government elections are on next year, and a lot of the preparatory work for that is happening right now.  and i find that at the moment, i care too much to just sit quietly on the sidelines and let things happen, the way i did for the 2011 elections.  i felt strangely unmotivated at that time, by politics or by very much else.  but now, i care and it feels good.

but also, i go through periods of time when the words just don't flow.  but now i'm on holiday, and i have a bit of space to write again.  so here goes.

a couple of weeks ago, i was involved in a fundraiser which was a showing of a documentary film called "the spirit of 45".  it was about the labour government in the UK that took power in 1945 headed by clement attlee, and won another term after that.  wikipedia's summary of the film is as good as any:

Relying primarily on archive footage and interviews, and without a narrative voiceover, the film recounts the endemic poverty in prewar Britain, the sense of optimism that followed victory in World War 2 and the subsequent expansion of the welfare state, founding of the National Health Service and nationalisation of significant parts of the UK's economy. The film documents the extent to which these achievements, as Loach sees them, have since been subject to attack in the decades that followed, particularly under the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

and here are a couple of reviews, one from nz.

it was definitely an interesting film, providing a vision of a different way of organising society and the economy.  a vision of equitable distribution and full employment, centralised services that weren't based on profit.  an alternative, if you will, of the capitalist model, and particularly the neo-liberal version, that we live in today.

as an accurate portrayal of british history, well i can't comment if it is one.  not having any particular ties to that country, nor an particular interest in its post-war history, i'm not in any position to judge.  i certainly heard comments from those who came to see it, who do have those ties (one even voted for mr attlee in that election), that many things were left out & that it wasn't entirely a full picture of what happened at that time.

certainly, the portrayal of the depression and the issues of poverty were all too real.  i found it pretty sad that the major issues covered by the film are all still major issues we are facing here in nz today.  housing.  employment (or lack thereof).  access to healthcare.  decent wages.

there is no doubt in my mind that government has a crucial role to play in these areas.  the policy of building houses, of centralising the rail transport system & having a strong public health systems are all policies that are as relevant today as they were in 1945.

however, there was one thing that really stood out for me as i watched this film, which was based on historical footage & modern-day interviews with people who were born in the 1930s.  it was the absolute lack of people of colour.  there was only one shot of a black man, as part of an audience shot, and no-one of colour who had a speaking role.  no-one interviewed, none of the experts, none in the archival footage other than this one unnamed black guy.

i really noticed it, probably because i'm a person of colour, but also because i know that poverty and low pay are issues which affect people of colour.  a lot.  the lowest paid professions in this country - cleaners & the aged care sector - are dominated by women of colour.  they tend to have some of the lowest standards of living, not just because of class but because they are often shut out of better paying jobs due to direct discrimination.

that the voices of people of colour are totally absent makes the rest of the film suspect for me.  even though i appreciate the ideas that were discussed, and the real life stories of people who had no safety net.  i just can't imagine what would make a person so colour-blind, so oblivious to the fact that there was a whole section of society who was missed out of this telling of history.

which then makes me wonder: perhaps those policies enacted by the attlee government didn't benefit people of colour.  those new houses might not have been available for those people, access to health still wasn't as good, access to jobs non-existent.  now i'd like to see a black person's telling of that history, to see if that government provided any hope for them, any substantial change.

this disappearing of people of colour struck me as well, because there are many political commentators on the left today who would also like us to be invisible and to stay invisible.  any mention of issues around race (as well as gender & other markers of identity) are dismissed as "identity politics", because those issues aren't important & don't affect the lives of the ones who are urging us to be quiet, to sit back and wait for the more important issues to be solved.

it may be coincidental that i found this quote at blue milk today, from martin luther king:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice… who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait.

but it seems so relevant to the idea that identity politics are a distraction and irrelevant.  and i can't help but conclude that a film which completely leaves out the narratives of people of colour is hugely incomplete.


Maia said...

Thanks for this post I've been really frustrated by what is left out of the spirit of '45 (and I haven't seen it). You say you don't know much about British history - so I'm just going to add some information that I think underlines how fucked-up this exclusion is.

1945 was before mass-migration to the UK from former colonies. A little googling suggests that in 1951 (the census year) the British Chinese, South Asian, African and Afro-Carribean population combined were 0.2% of the total population.

It's important that the film is uninterested in that history - does not draw attention to it - and doesn't have PoC experts - to represent the way things of change. It seems to me really dangerous to create nostalgia for a whiter Britain in such an explicit way.

In addition, Attlee's government aimed to pay for its domestic policy with additional funds from its overseas colonies. It de-colonised from Palestine and India/Pakistan in a less than ideal way - given the history (supposed to be understatemnt obviously).

Whereas in Africa in doubled-down on repressive colonisation in order to get more income. Kenya, in particular, has received attention for hte human rights attrocities committed by the British int he lead-up to decolonisation. A lot of those were initiated by the Attlee government - who chose a path of centralisation and control.

For all I've heard Spirit of '45 portrays the Britain of 1945 as an embattled lonely island. And that's so historically wrong - and white supremicist.

stargazer said...

thanx for the extra details maia. i did study british history at school, but it was the elizabethan era & king james 1. so i'm not really up-to-date with the post WWII stuff.

and yes, the way the british left india - carved up, impoverished and with a lot of sectarian violence going on - was pretty atrocious.

U Thant Club said...

Britain in 1945 was still overwhelmingly a white country, especially outside London.