LIKE THE FLICKERING NEWSREELS in The Man in the High Castle, which depict an Allied victory in a universe parallel to that ruled by a victorious fascism, so it seems that our National Film Unit documentaries, now online, also depict a universe parallel to the one we inhabit.
A parallel universe in which the military campaign against fascism—the subject of the very first NFU documentary, 1941’s Country Lads, and a success in our timeline—was accompanied, as the war wound down, by a further campaign against giant evils on the home front.
The Five Giant Evils of unemployment, poverty, preventable ill-health, ignorance, and slum conditions, as they were identified in the United Kingdom’s landmark 1942 Beveridge Report.
|Beveridge's 'Five Giants': Idleness, Want, Disease, Ignorance and Squalor.|
It was no coincidence that the report came out in 1942. For there was, indeed, such a war for the home front, though it has often been overshadowed by the military history of the same era.
The soldiers, fighting against fascism, demanded that they also be given a better future to fight for.
There was to be no return to ‘business as usual’ in the way that there had been after the First World War.
No return to unemployment of the kind that had stalked 1920s Britain.
Or, in this country, to the real estate gazumping that fills the first scene of John Mulgan’s Man Alone. A scene in which Anzacs in a 1919 Auckland pub complain bitterly about how wartime prosperity (that strange paradox!) has driven land prices through the roof and murdered their hopes while they were off defending the “soft stay-at-homes” who made the capital gains.
The cover of a book published in London in 1918. Captain Richard Reiss would go on to become a leading British town planner, heaped with honours when he died in 1959.
In New Zealand, these radicalised veterans would go on to vote Labour in 1935: a more constructive outlet for their frustrations than in some other countries.
A feeling that the Second World War was likely to be followed, like the First, by a dangerous revolutionary era that could go either way was undoubtedly a factor in the framing of the Beveridge Report. In the words of the report’s lead author, Sir William Beveridge, “A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching.”
Adding to the sense of revolution was the idea that a speculative form of capitalism, running rampant in areas such as real estate and the stockmarket during the so-called ‘roaring twenties’, had destabilised society and the productive economy. Rampant speculation had led to the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, and the imminent Second World War. All of which was, in effect, the bill for a big party that a few speculators had indulged in.
Never again, was the prevalent mood. A mood that was only lent further militancy and determination by the actual outbreak of the War.
A sketch by a prominent cartoonist of the day, Leslie Illingworth, depicts a British soldier raising a tankard, a play on Beveridge’s name, with the words “Here’s to the brave new world!”
|"Here's to the brave new world!" - Leslie Illingworth 1942|
The very success with which revolutionary impulses were channelled into a welfare state has led us to forget that both world wars, and not merely the first, were indeed accompanied by revolutionary social change. Change driven from below and accommodated from above. And more successfully so, the second time around.
The result is captured in those newsreels I mentioned. For instance, in ways that were typical for the post-World War II era, but sadly not so typical for our own, a 1954 NFU newsreel urges the public to put their spare cash into long-term government bonds, to underwrite things like roads, dams, schools and state houses, because:
Only an intensive building programme now can provide for the future! Children, the citizens of tomorrow, must also have their chance!
In 1959, The New Zealanders declares that:
Education’s almost wholly state-administered and free. All New Zealanders attend the same sort of schools and most talk with the same sort of accent. . . . There are universities in all the main centres. Varsity education is also free to all who pass the entrance examination. . . . Having a baby brings no financial worries . . . The best medical attention is free in the hospitals. Medicine is also distributed free of charge. With health care right through life we’ve come to believe that the people’s welfare is the government’s responsibility. . . . New Zealand’s a wonderfully healthy country, a great place for bringing up children. . . All workpeople must belong to unions . . .
Ten years later, in 1969, the split-screen epic This is New Zealand depicted a go-ahead sort of a country, to a strikingly upbeat musical accompaniment.
In print, the historian David Hamer referred, in 1963, to New Zealand’s agreement with Australia to jointly combat the giant evils on both sides of the Tasman after World War II, and to our lobbying for similar declarations to be included in the founding charters of the United Nations:
The most distinctive contemporary feature of New Zealand as a ‘small democracy’ is probably our insistence, proclaimed to the world in no uncertain terms in the Canberra Pact and at the founding of the United Nations, that the state must maintain full employment. That this problem of employment should have come to figure so prominently in our politics reflects the exceptionally wide variance between our basic economic situation and the human needs of our society. In a country whose economic well-being is dependent on primary production for export and whose economy is therefore founded on commercial farming, people do seem very superfluous. . . . This situation of superfluousness and precariousness with regard to employment has been felt all the more keenly because we are a small and isolated country. And, because we are a democracy, these feelings have become the material of political pressure and political action, so that, after the bitter experience of two depressions, ‘full employment’ and ‘social security’ became basic principles of our government’s policy.
This important passage comes from Hamer’s contribution to Studies of a Small Democracy, a classic collection of essays on the politics of the New Zealand welfare state as it was then. A collection known to generations of students as Chapman and Sinclair after its two editors, the political scientist Bob Chapman and the historian Keith, later Sir Keith, Sinclair.
At this point, it is impossible not to think of the novelist L. P. Hartley’s famous line that “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
Very foreign, when we consider the pessimistic mood of today’s New Zealand, pessimism born of the way that the giant evils have returned. And when we consider the way that present-day governments seem to be paralytic in the face of these evils and the things that are causing them to return, such as our “morally bankrupt housing market.”
In short, the old mid-century newsreels depict a political universe that is now foreign to us—indeed, a parallel universe in which we won the war on the home front as well as the war overseas—to a New Zealand where the five giant evils have staged a comeback and now hold our cities under brutal occupation, much as they also do in today’s Britain.
On the home front, in both countries, the most resonant slogan of the 1945 era—Never Again!—turned into ‘never say never’.
How did we come to snatch social defeat from the jaws of victory? To suffer such a strange defeat, in view of our greater productivity and average wealth today?
Social investments to overcome the giant evils are never unaffordable in a modern society. They are investments, after all. But these investments are more affordable to us today than they were fifty, sixty or seventy years ago. So, what changed to make us think that we can’t afford them? That’s an issue I will explore in a follow-up post.
4 November 2021
This essay is exclusive to Bowalley Road.