This week I was invited to an event at Parliament to mark the 50th anniversary of the famous film Cathy Come Home in the company of MPs and its director Ken Loach.
In 1966, it was watched by over 12 million people and had a massive impact on people’s views about homelessness. It led to the creation of the organisations Crisis and Shelter and is considered one of the most socially influential films of all time.
After watching a section of the film, Ken Loach, spoke. He strongly criticised the record of recent governments who have failed to build anywhere near enough homes. He powerfully articulated how a misplaced faith in ‘the market’ was the fundamental problem – because it was only through intentional planning and investment that enough housing would be built. As with his films, Loach’s views were uncompromising, thought-provoking and trenchant.
After this, a number of others representing different homelessness organisations spoke and there was a time for questions and debate.
It should have been a memorable evening. But actually I found it deeply disappointing.
Lack of controversy
Cathy Come Home was a film which shocked the nation. It sparked a huge debate and controversy. A huge number of complaints were made to the BBC from people who claimed it was left wing propaganda.
But at the event this week, there was not a whiff of controversy or even disagreement. Despite the political extremity of Ken Loach’s views (even under Jeremy Corbyn he still refuses to re-join the Labour Party) none of the politicians present ventured to disagree with him. Instead they just heaped the compliments on him and the legacy of his film and uniformly advocated increases in government spending.
Yet, the contemporary political context could not be more antithetical to Loach’s views. A ruling Tory government, continuing austerity, an opposition in disarray and a global right-wing resurgence. Yet no attempt was made to bring any other views into meaningful dialogue with what Loach was advocating.
In our national home of political debate, all we ended up with was a cosy gathering full of nodding heads. As I commented before asking my question, it was the perfect example of a liberal echo-chamber.
Contradiction and challenge
‘Negativity is essential, for if the positive remains alone, it is unchanged, stable and inert… for example, an unchallenged society, a force without counterforce, a person engaged in no dialogue, an unstimulated professor, a church without heretics, a sole party without rivals, is enclosed within the permanent repetition of its own image.
It will be satisfied with what it has done thus far and will see no reason to change…the only thing that can bring about change or evolution is contradiction, challenge…this factor carries with it the transformation of the situation.’
Cathy Come Home is an example of what Ellul wrote about. It challenged society, it broke the inertia and provided a counterforce which created change. And this movement was powerful enough to lead to changes in the law and the development of charities that have helped thousands of people.
What will bring change today?
The situation in 2016 is not the same as 1966. Some things, such as general standards of living have improved. Yet inequality between rich and poor has got worse. Family life, a key theme in Cathy Come Home, has become less and less stable as fewer fathers than ever live with their children. And over the last ten years immigration from the EU has had a massive impact on levels of homelessness.
These are some of the challenging issues that we need to grapple with honestly. Some are issues which the government investment can change – such as building more affordable housing. But others, such as increasing the stability of family life, are more complex and more controversial.
Wallowing in nostalgia about the impact of historic social movements is not being true to their legacy. We need to work harder than that and be committed to thinking and debating about what is achievable to bring about real change today.