Intransigence and betrayal in the General Strike

Submitted by Matthew on 21 September, 2011 - 12:38

Tim Thomas continues a series of articles on the British Film Institute’s Ken Loach retrospective with a review of Days of Hope, his TV series looking at class struggle in early 20th century Britain.

Jim Allen, author of the reprehensible play Perdition, wrote the script for this 4-part TV production. Allen’s themes, intensely focused on the class struggle, are about intransigence and betrayal in real historical circumstances — here, the history of working-class organisation from the First World War to the General Strike.

Ben, played by Paul Copley, decides to join up with his mates though he defends the rights of conscientious objectors, one of whom is his brother-in-law, a Christian Socialist and later a Labour MP. Ben fights first in an imperial war against the Germans and, almost immediately after that hollow victory, against the uprising in Ireland where he finds himself witnessing the subjugation of the civilian population. The brother-in-law spends these years in the glass house.

In the second episode, Ben comes home, breaks the stock on his rifle and is immediately embroiled in a lock-out (the 1921 Durham miners’ lock out). There is an instructive encounter with the local pit owner: the men have waited in the rain for the party to finish up at the manor. Sandwiches are provided for them on a silver salva. Cigars are offered. He wants to know why they “don’t all just get on”, and tells them that “in these difficult times we’ve all got to make sacrifices, you know”. The miners have laid dynamite in the mine and captured a couple of policeman. They have come a long way and they know the consequences. “You know”, the owner says, “I always keep my word”. They agree to de-escalate on the basis they can get back to work and that there will be no victimisations. Hands are shaken. The same night, the police arrive and arrest the lot of them. Long jail sentences are served.

The third part deals with the first Labour government. Ben comes out of prison a Communist Party sympathiser. His brother-in-law is now a rather naïve MP, given to drinking wine and taking his Quaker wife to fancy restaurants. There is a telling scene when a trade delegation from the Soviet Union visits the House of Commons. Already there are intimations of a change in Soviet attitudes. Is the Communist Party going to stop supporting British workers’ revolutionary activity for the sake of the kind of trade agreements that will be exclusively in their interests (“building socialism in one country”)? Already opportunistic managers from pre-revolutionary times are joining the Soviet party. Is something stifling the energy of the revolution?

The question hovers around until the final episode: the General Strike. Here the incredible hypocrisy of Labour and TUC leaders, especially Bevin and Thomas, only too eager to return to “normality” and renew their servile respect for King and Country, is matched by the Communist Party subservience to the Stalinist line. Everything is moving right. The slump is only five years away.

Is this film relevant today? It was written during the re-awakening of the class struggle in reaction to the economic policies of the Heath government with Thatcher’s “freedoms” not so far in the future. There is a mirror held up for us too. We have a respect for history. We see in it an unfolding dynamic and we are faced today with the same enemies: the bankers, the owners, the strike breakers and fascists, the Janus-like trades union leaders. Will history repeat itself? Will intransigence or betrayal win?

In my final article, I want to have a brief look at some of his other films and advance some criticism of his political activism.