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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.