A Film About Britain’s Rail Workers…
And The Disaster of Privatization
[The following interview with filmmaker Ken Loach
appears in the March issue of International Viewpoint, monthly
publication of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. The
interviewer is Alan Thornett.]
Ken Loach is Britain's best-known independent
filmmaker. He became known in the 1960s through “social realist” TV dramas
like Cathy Come Home, about homelessness; The Lump, about the
exploitation of casual workers in the building trades; and Kes, the
moving story of a working class boy and his love for his pet kestrel. In the
1970s he made, together with leftwing scriptwriter Jim Allen, the monumental
series Days of Hope about the 1926 British general strike. In the early
1980s, at the high tide of Thatcherism, Loach was virtually blacklisted by TV
bosses and unable to work.
But at the end of the decade he started a prolific
stream of independent movies which continues to this day. These include Hidden
Agenda, about Northern Ireland; Carla’s Song, about Nicaragua; Land
and Freedom, about the Spanish Civil War; and Raining Stones, about a
working class community in Manchester. All have caused controversy, none more
than Land and Freedom, which followed closely Orwell’s Homage to
Catalonia, and was hotly debated by former participants in the Spanish
revolution. His most recent film is The Navigators, about the British
railways after privatization. Loach also directed the Socialist Alliance TV
broadcast for the 2001 British general election. Alan Thornett spoke to him
following the release of The Navigators.
Your movie shows a very thorough knowledge of the rail
worker’s background. How did you get it?
The script was written by Rob Dawber who was a railwayman, a track worker for seventeen years. I hope the film reflects his knowledge and experience. Also, many of the parts are taken by people who are, or were, rail workers. There were always experts on hand to put me right.
Can you explain how the railways in Britain got to this
The railways were the last major industry to be
privatized by the government of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Their belief
was that only private capital and the disciplines of the market would make for
efficiency and high productivity. The
consequence, as with all privatization, has been disastrous. In a rational
society there would be a balance between society’s needs and its ability to
satisfy them. There would be a thoughtful and ordered use of resources. There
would be proper training and working conditions with fair pay and job security.
The needs of private capital are quite incompatible with such requirements.
The railways were divided into separate units while still in public ownership. Different buyers were sought for the track and train operation. Working conditions were attacked. Safety procedures were changed. Many thousands of experienced workers left the industry. The railway culture of safe practices, built up over generations, was consciously attacked. The consequent mess, predicted by railwaymen, seems to be a surprise to the Labour government. They are ideologically committed to privatization, like their predecessors. Despite an unusual degree of popular support, the government refuses to take the railways back into public ownership and develop a properly funded transport system using the most advanced technology. Instead, the subsidy to the private owners has increased and the chaos continues.
The new extension of global capitalism is destroying
even the idea of workers’ solidarity; it’s not very promising. What do you
You’re right, the facility to transfer capital around the world in an instant, searching for the fastest profit, is a challenge to the workers’ movement. The bureaucratic leadership of most unions in Britain seems incapable of meeting this. But the fight against casualization, so-called flexibility, privatization, and redundancies calls for a new internationalism. If we are to have any chance of getting a few victories, particularly in the new integrated Europe, we must make and develop contacts at the grassroots level. Whenever I’ve had the chance to see these contacts made, I’m always surprised at the immense good will and sense of solidarity that is waiting to flower.
The end of your film is a terrible and dark end for the
workers… Is it because you think there aren’t any other perspectives
The end of the film is dark, because we didn’t want
to encourage any false hopes. Unsafe working practices and poor working
conditions are a necessary consequence of privatization, not a bit of individual
bad luck. There is only one way out, in the end: a publicly owned and
accountable railway run by those who work in it, in partnership with the
community it serves.
If you hadn’t any constraints, what would be the
movie of your dreams?
The movie of my dreams is the next one. The cinema of my dreams is something else. Maybe run on the same principles as we would like to see the railways operate!