“Chariots of Fire” and Thatcherism by mattsteinglass
August 20, 2010, 1:03 pm
Filed under: Film, Politics

The great Doug Pascover posted a hilarious takeoff of Blake’s “And did those feet, in ancient times…” after a post I did over at the Economist, which got me humming the tune of the hymn in the shower, which got me thinking about the opening sequence of “Chariots of Fire” in which that hymn is being sung over an aerial shot of green English fields (as I recall) that zooms in on an Oxford college, which got me reflecting on what an amazing movie “Chariots of Fire” was. The conflict is between the effortless upper-class British guy who trains with an amateur coach, as one does, and the striving Jewish guy who almost gets himself disqualified because (scandalously, for the 1920s or whenever) he hires a pro coach. Apparently he got confused and thought the point was to win. Anyway, the theme is traditional aristocratic amateurism versus upwardly-mobile immigrant commercial professionalism.

What I’d never thought about before was how well-suited that theme was to early-1980s Thatcherite Britain. Labour cast itself as the party of the working class, but if I understand it right, a lot of the energy of Thatcher’s Tories came from upwardly mobile uncouth plebes, many from immigrant backgrounds, who saw the rules and social-services structures that had been put in place by Labourite socialism as a straitjacket rather than a support net. Similarly, the upper-class runner in “Chariots of Fire” thinks of his amateur course as the less moneyed one, but of course in the real world only wealthy upper-class people have the time and connections to compete at the upper levels of sport as amateurs. When the aristocrats complain about the tawdry commercialism of this Jew who’s paying his trainer, they’re obviously also complaining about the threat this poses of upsetting and opening up their social structure. This seems to me to be suffused with themes that were circulating in Thatcher-era politics: which is really more egalitarian, a society of rules for the rich and subsidies for the poor that maintains clear class divisions, or a free-for-all society in which money can buy anything, peerages included, and everyone is constantly sinking or swimming?

The film also teases at a weird duality in Blake’s poem, which is the mixture of Hellenic and Hebraic themes. The “bow of burning gold” and “chariot of fire” Blake wants somebody to bring him seem pretty Hellenic and Apollonian. But the pretext of the poem is an apocryphal/hypothetical visit of the “holy lamb of God” to England and, ultimately, an intent to build Jerusalem there. There’s something very nice about the way this duality recurs in the conflict between the English aristocracy with its Hellenic sporting ideals (resurrecting the Olympics etc.) and the entrance of this Jewish aspirant who upsets the value structure. Historically, the interaction between the Greco-Roman and Hebraic worlds was pretty adversarial (Maccabees, Herod, etc.), but in the long run the fusion of their value systems in a thing called Christianity turned out to be of some significance.


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The amazing thing about the welfare state and nationalised industries that were set up in the aftermath of world war 2 was how quickly people began to identify them as something traditional or quintessentially British. The half-affectionate jokes that used to abound about British Rail, the great pride taken in the (almost entirely rubbish) products of BMC, the idea that the railways were ‘our’ railways, as if they had suddenly popped into existence on nationalisation, the Blitz-like spirit that sprung up during the strikes of the 70’s. Thatcherism shattered this.

I grew up in a mining town in west Lancashire, where a strike was called in support of the national miner’s strike called by Arthur Scargill (who now gives talks at the Stalinist Society) against the wishes of the union’s working members. My local council was run by Militant Tendency, a Trotskyite wing of the Labour party which was eventually thrown out by Neil Kinnock, which ensured that as many positions as possible went to the party faithful, even if it did mean making the former inmate of a lunatic asylum headteacher of an infant’s school. Living there has made me a life-long defender of Mrs. Thatcher’s basic approach – that it was, in the end, better to give people control over their own lives than to have a nanny state decide what was best for them.

However, it would be wrong to characterise the system she replaced as “rules for the rich and subsidies for the poor”. Better to say “taxes for the rich, and overpaid, unproductive jobs for those who strike. And whilst the society she created offered more in the way of opportunity, class differences have remained firmly entrenched in the education system, particularly the contrast between the 7% of people who can afford to send their children to a fee-paying school (called a “public school” in UK parlance) and the 93% who cannot.

Comment by FOARP

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