Clement Attlee at the Labour Party’s victory celebration in 1945
It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when Britain responded to crippling debts and chronic daily hardship with a decisive move to the left: nationalising industry, building council houses and creating brand new public services from scratch.
The fact that it’s hard to imagine now is exactly why Ken Loach has made The Spirit of ’45, a feature-length documentary that recalls the political tide of post-war Britain. It shows how the breathtaking achievements of the 1945–51 Labour government were possible thanks to the buoyancy created by waves of hope and empowerment that flowed through society after the war.
But the film also traces how most of the work of that time has been undone, from Thatcher’s privatisations through to the current government’s dismantling of the NHS. This long reversal has expelled from contemporary mainstream politics ideas that in 1945 were considered common sense. Ken Loach has made it his business to record the sentiment behind those ideas, so that it might be revived.
Stylistically The Spirit of ’45 is a conventional documentary – archive footage is interspersed with personal recollections from a selection of workers-turned-pensioners (mostly long-standing political activists and trade unionists), a few younger people from key industries, Tony Benn, and some commentators for context. But this familiar form serves a purpose – it allows members of the 1945 generation to convey their message to the viewer in the most direct and engaging way. The film acts upon what contributor Dot Gibson, general secretary of the National Pensioners Convention, calls the ‘absolute duty’ of the older generation to ‘come forward and join with young people and talk to them … about what was the vision in 1945.’
This commitment to let working class voices speak for themselves is a bridge of continuity with Loach’s fictional films, renowned for their naturalistic acting and focus on working class life. And because of the subject matter, the effect in The Spirit of ’45 is striking. Loach’s interviewees go so strongly against the grain of the current zombie political consensus that what they say will make Tories roll their eyes and Blairites blush. But their arguments for common ownership and a society in which we are all our ‘brothers’ and sisters’ keepers’ are put across with such confidence that they retain their force seven decades on.
The film is at its most emotionally powerful when talking about the foundation of the NHS. Harry Keen tells of when, as a junior GP, he visited a family on the day the NHS came into being. He had previously left some medicine for a child with a cough. ‘I said “How’s little Johnny?” And [Johnny’s mother] said, “Oh he’s fine.” And I heard a lot of coughing and spluttering at the top of the stairs. I said, “He doesn’t sound terribly good, would you like me to go up and see him?” … She said, “No, I’m sorry doctor, we can’t afford it.” And I said “Today, July the fifth, it will cost you nothing.” And I was able to go up, and I’ve never forgotten that moment in my life.’
Later we hear about how the NHS is now being privatised. It is clear that, by reminding us of what we are losing, The Spirit of ’45 is an intervention into current struggles. In fact, after the inspiration of the stories of 1945, the closing 25 minutes of the film are a morose catalogue of the industries privatised in the 1980s (British Telecom, water, British Aerospace, British Gas, buses, Rolls Royce, British Airways, steel, electricity, plus the abolition of the dock labour scheme), the 1990s (mines, railways), and after (the NHS, which has been progressively opened up to the private sector since 1983). The only consolation we are offered is still images of Occupy and anti-cuts demos. But this is a documentary, not fiction, so it is up to us to change the ending.
The Spirit of ’45 undoubtedly glosses over a lot. There is a brief discussion of the limitations of the model of nationalisation that was adopted. A miner tells of how the old bosses were put in charge of the National Coal Board. Nationalised industries were run much as they had been when private: top-down, authoritarian, and with no hope of workers’ control. But this critique is not fleshed out. Nor does Loach get into the details of the 1945–51 Labour government, presenting it as simply socialist (a clip of Attlee declaring victory for ‘a Labour movement with a socialist policy’ appears twice in the film) and focusing on Bevan, without reference to the social democratic trend in the party.
But the clue is in the title. Ken Loach has made a film about the spirit of 1945, not the institutions that were established or Labour’s shortcomings. It is the spirit among the people, the certainty that a better world was within their grasp, that Ken Loach wishes to record and to celebrate, in the hope that some of it will rub off.
The Spirit of ’45 is out now on DVD.
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History