The Spirit of ’45: an elegy to another time?


Stuart King gives his thoughts on the new documentary film from Ken Loach

Ken Loach’s new film combines detailed social history with moving personal accounts of the period before and after the Second World War. Its focus is on the construction of the British welfare state and represents a conscious and timely challenge to the current austerity drive.

The film combines archive footage of the 1930s and 40s and surrounds them with individuals giving their personal memories, as well as political talking heads from the socialist and trade union movement. The format is hardly original, but the film nonetheless delivers a powerful political punch.

It shows how workers, returning from mass mobilisation in the army, were determined not to be sent back to the slums and onto the dole in the way their fathers had been after the First World War. The Spirit of ’45 drove the Labour Party forward to construct a radical and reforming programme and swept it to power with a majority of over 200 seats.

One of the most striking sequences in the film is seeing Churchill speaking at an election rally, at first bemused, then stunned, by the boos and jeers, the chants of “get out”. The masses had had enough of the Tories who promised only a return the old order.

Taking control

Most of the film is taken up with how the Labour government took control of the railways, mines, utilities and health services – creating the first ever National Health Service. It explains how the government took over a shattered economy with an enormous housing crisis and an industry geared towards war production.

The film’s theme is that despite all these enormous problems the solidarity and energy that was harnessed by the Labour government delivered huge gains for ordinary working people in housing, health, poverty and job security. The moral we are meant to draw is that if only there was an equally determined party of labour today we could do similar great things.

However, as one might expect from Ken Loach, this is not a totally uncritical view of Labour in 1945-51. As some old miners point out in the film, the ownership might have changed under the National Coal Board, but the old bosses just reappeared as state bureaucrats – appointed by Labour ministers. Investment increased, health and safety improved, along with wages and job security, but the old class conflict between bosses and workers continued, albeit at a less intense level, mediated by the Labour/Coal Board supporting union officials.

Aneurin Bevan, it is explained, only managed to push through the NHS by buying off the doctors and consultants, making them self employed rather than salaried staff and allowing private practice to coexist alongside and in the state funded health service. These compromises, “stuffing their mouths with gold” in Bevan’s words, have remained the Trojan Horse for every New Labour and Tory plan to extend privatisation within the NHS.

But these critiques are muted within the overwhelmingly social democratic narrative of the film, one of a socialist Labour government transforming Britain. Attlee and Bevan are the heroes, little attention is given to Ernest Bevin the right-wing foreign secretary, firmly wedded to empire and the pursuit of the Cold War in alliance with the USA.

Indeed many of the radical changes introduced by the 1945-51 Labour government were absolutely essential for the recovery and modernisation of capitalism in Britain after the war. Outdated infrastructure – mines, transport, utilities, workers health and housing – had been made worse by the war and lack of investment. Many of these industries were on their last legs. Labour’s state capitalism rescued them, over-compensated their owners and recapitalised them at the state’s expense.

As nationalised industries they provided the infrastructure and hidden subsidies to let private industry reconvert to peacetime production and export around the world. Labour’s reforms were the basis for the long boom of British industry in the 50s and 60s. But ironically it was the Tories who reaped the political benefit.

This period is not covered by the film but the Tories under Churchill/Macmillan made only minor changes to Labour policies, living with nationalisation, the NHS, and themselves building hundreds of thousands of council houses.

Despite positive references to Occupy, Spirit of '45 lacks voices from the new generation of anticapitalists

Despite positive references to Occupy, Spirit of ’45 lacks voices from the new generation of anticapitalists

Perhaps because this period does not fit into the film’s narrative, it quickly jumps from 1945 to Margaret Thatcher’s infamous Francis of Assisi speech on the steps of 10 Downing St in 1979 – cue for jeers in the Brixton Ritzy audience.

The rise of neoliberalism

The last third of the film examines Thatcher’s onslaught on the trade unions and welfare state; how money, profit and greed replaced the “collectivist spirit of ‘45”. The arguments are well put – trade unionists explain how the unions and militants were defeated, talking heads explain how the crisis of British capitalism necessitated this change of policy on the part of the ruling class, and all bemoan the failure of the modern Labour Party to live up to the Spirit of ’45.

Unfortunately despite the odd freeze frame of today’s protests – Occupy in St Pauls, UK Uncut, students and protestors on the streets – none of the younger generation of rebels and anticapitalists get much of a look in. Loach sticks to the tried and tested, it is left to Tony Benn, Alan Thornett, Tony Mulhearn, and John Rees to present the argument. As a result the film presents as looking back to the past not to the future. It comes across as an elegy to a period, and a labour movement, that is no longer with us.

Maybe we should stop looking backward to the “Spirit of ‘45” and start looking forward to the spirit of anticapitalism in the 21st century. Good as Ken Loach is, for that we need a film director reflective of a new, rebellious generation.


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