Film of the week: The Spirit of ’45

Where went our dreams of building a better tomorrow, asks Ken Loach (and friends)?

Philip Kemp
Updated:

from our April 2013 issue

Partying politics: Clement Attlee and supporters celebrate Labour’s triumph in the 1945 general election

Partying politics: Clement Attlee and supporters celebrate Labour’s triumph in the 1945 general election

Socialism. Not a word we’ve heard from leaders of the Labour Party too often in recent decades. But here’s Clem Attlee, fresh from his party’s triumph in the 1945 election, when Labour was returned with an overall majority of 146 seats, announcing to a packed Westminster Central Hall that he intends to lead “a Labour movement with a socialist policy” and being cheered to the rafters.

Ken Loach’s film is a celebration and a lament. Using interviews, archive footage and excerpts from the rich documentary heritage of the period, it celebrates the moment of idealism when demobbed troops “came back imbued with that spirit of anything is possible”.

Much of this radical spirit, we’re reminded, stemmed from educational initiatives within the conscript forces, with troops encouraged to attend discussions on politics and current affairs. We see impassioned (if obviously staged) debates on how things might change after the war. And in a richly comic episode a fruity-voiced Tory MP, Maurice Petherick, reads out a letter from a constituent deploring such potentially disruptive practices: “I maintain most strongly that any of these subjects which turn towards politics are wrong. For the love of Mike do something about it unless you want to have the creatures coming back all pansy-pink.”

As it turned out, such reactionaries weren’t so far wrong: 1945 was a moment when it really seemed, however naive it may appear today, that it might be feasible to fulfil the plea made by pre-war Labour leader George Lansbury to build the New Jerusalem “in England’s green and pleasant land”. There was a determination, according to pioneering GP Julian Tudor Hart, that we were “not going back to the Britain of the 1930s – never again”.

What’s most striking about the testimonies, direct or reported, from the witnesses Loach has assembled is the sense of total identification, the deeply personal pride that people took in the developments of the post-war world. Deborah Garvie, a present-day housing worker, shows us the letter her builder grandfather received telling him that he had been assigned a council house in Stevenage New Town – a town that he himself had helped to build. This letter, she tells us, he carried with him in his wallet till the day he died.

Likewise Ray Jackson, former train driver, describes his delighted amazement when his family moved into their new council house with its French windows and indoor facilities. “There was all this light! And there were stairs! And a bathroom!” Professor Harry Keen relives the gratification he felt when, as a North London GP visiting a mother worried she couldn’t afford his services or the medicines he prescribed – a visit he made on the very day the National Health Service was inaugurated – he was able to tell her, “‘Today, July the 5th, it’ll cost you nothing!’ I’ve never forgotten that moment.”

Repeatedly we’re told of people’s elation at the idea that “at last we’re going to take charge of our own lives”. Ray Davies, a retired Welsh miner, recalls his whole community “cheering, laughing, singing, dancing” at the news that the mines were being nationalised, and seeing some of his hardened fellow miners, men who “were rough and… tough, they would take anything the bosses ever threw at them”, with tears rolling down their cheeks.

Not that nationalisation in reality spelt power to the people; as Tony Benn observes, the whole process was inherently top-down, and “the idea that people who worked in an industry had any say in how the industry was run was completely foreign.” Another ex-miner remembers his disgust at seeing Lord Hyndley, a prominent mine-owner who had campaigned long and vehemently against nationalisation, being made chairman of the National Coal Board. “What sort of nationalisation have we got? The same old gang back in power!”

Even so, the post-war dispensation in the UK marked a concerted move to bury – forever, it was hoped – the pre-war world where, as Julian Tudor Hart puts it, “everything was run by rich people for rich people.” Labour’s 1945 election manifesto was explicit in placing the blame: the slumps of the 30s, it stated, “were the sure and certain result of the concentration of too much economic power in the hands of too few men… The cost of ‘economic freedom’ is too high if it is bought at the cost of idleness and misery for millions.” Here, as elsewhere in Loach’s film, the pre-echoes of present-day conditions are resonant.

The first two-thirds of the film culminate in the spindly technogeek hoopla of the 1951 Festival of Britain – a brave show of fragile national pride put on to lighten the day-to-day austerity (food, clothes, fuel were still rationed) stemming from the crippling outlay of the war effort and the cost of establishing the welfare state.

Loach doesn’t mention how the Festival was petulantly junked after the Tories regained power in October of that year. Instead we fade to black, then abruptly jump ahead to a yet more fateful year: 1979, when Margaret Thatcher gained her first electoral victory. And, following her oleaginous quoting of Francis of Assisi (“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony… Where there is despair, may we bring hope”), the melancholy – or triumphal, depending on your political leanings – recital begins, as one by one the nationalisations of the post-war era are reversed, and gas, steel, water, electricity, the railways and all the rest are sold back into private hands at bargain rates.

At the same time, we see other key elements of the welfare state being chipped away – council houses sold off, bit-by-bit privatisation eroding the Royal Mail and the NHS. Interspersed with this, the key defeats of working-class power: the miners’ strike of 1984, the Liverpool dockers’ strike of 1995. An outraged miner denounces the police brutality suffered by himself and his fellow-miners: “Why do the police come with such venom? They seem to enjoy inflicting pain and suffering on the working man. Why? Who tells them to go beat a picket’s head? Who tells them to inflict pain, try to kill him? Who is it? I want to know.” By way of response Loach cuts straight to Thatcher at that year’s Tory Party conference, beaming in triumph at a jubilant ovation.

Loach has covered some of this territory before: the dock strike in The Flickering Flame (1996), the privatisation of the railways in The Navigators (2001), not to mention his 1995 short A Contemporary Case for Common Ownership. But The Spirit of ’45 is his most sustained account to date of what was gained in post-war Britain and then, four decades later, systematically dismantled – and dismantled, as BMA Council member Jacky Davis points out, by the very people “who grew up with and benefited from that system”.

“In these opinionated times,” Empire reviewer David Hughes recently noted, “‘documentary’ is often a synonym for ‘polemic’.” Loach’s film is openly, unashamedly polemical and partisan – an eloquent cry of rage and grief at what we once had and what we’ve allowed to be taken away from us.

It’s a challenge, too. Building on the impassioned testimonies of his interviewees and on his superbly chosen archive footage – courtesy of archivist Jim Anderson, who did an equally skilled job for Terence Davies’s Of Time and the City (2008) – Loach challenges us to resist, to fight back against the forces of private greed and indifference. The film ends with shots of mass protests – Occupy, UK Uncut, Defend the NHS – as ‘Jerusalem’ swells on the soundtrack. Loach is too intelligent a filmmaker to suggest that resistance will be easy – but too optimistic to say that it’s impossible.

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