Neoliberals should repress a individualistic shudder now for in The Spirit of ’45, veteran socialist and film-maker Ken Loach has produced an emotionally and politically resonant documentary which offers an unabashed celebration of socialism. A polemical call to arms in a very modern climate of austerity, The Spirit of ’45 ultimately should be lauded for its informative and engaging heart.
Opening with scenes of the wreckage and devastation of post-war Britain, Loach interweaves stark archive footage with newly filmed interviews. Filmed in monochrome, the modern interviews with retired miners, nurses, doctors and Tony Benn are blended seamlessly into the film’s narrative. From Clement Attlee’s Labour landslide victory in 1945, Loach charts the establishment of the NHS, the nationalisation of energy and transport industries and the wide scale building of council housing as historic achievements for Britain’s long suffering working class (rationing didn’t end in Britain until 1954). Fearful of the widespread unemployment of the ’20s, out of the fragmentation and hardship of war emerged a post-war consensus in favour of state provided welfare and state-owned industry.
The film remains at its most searing when it portrays the human cost of unrestrained, bellicose capitalism. In the years before the NHS, one elderly interviewee recounts how his mother died in childbirth “for want of a pint of blood, for want of an abortion”, leaving behind eight children. Growing up in Liverpool’s notorious slums, another interviewee recalls the ubiquity of bugs and lice in the bed he shared with four siblings.
It is important to point out, however, that the film does occasionally lapse into sentimentalism. There is no reference to those who dissented from the unifying vision of socialism. Indeed, whether the majority really desired ‘socialism’, or a reformed capitalist programme is not explored. Little emphasis is placed on the fact that the 1945 Labour government’s achievements were premised on this very mild brand of socialism which was never fundamentally consolidated. The thirty four years between the Attlee and Thatcherite administrations are brushed over, as if these years represented a linear trend in successful Labourite socialism, until, like a looming spectre, emerged Margaret Thatcher to usher in a nefarious onslaught of neoliberal economic deregulation and privatisation of industry. Of course while much of this is true, its portrayal lacks historical subtlety. Showing footage of a striking miner in 1984 asking who gave the order for the police to viciously bear him, the camera swiftly and impishly pans to a smiling Thatcher. It’s amusing, but this approach is childishly provocative.
But deeper still, at times, The Spirit of ’45 seems almost reactionary. Socialism appears rooted in the past, enveloped in a bygone glory which is very detached from the present. So where does this leave the future? Footage of the Occupy movement allude to the current groundswell of support for profound social change, while an ex-miner laments that currently ‘Labour are too middle class’. The possibility of Ed Miliband’s ‘socially responsible capitalism’ is acerbically attacked by a doctor interviewee, while another declares with rousing perspicacity, “The working class can achieve anything, if they would only realise it!”.
Of course, some might argue that in The Spirit of ’45 we’re only told half the story. But if history comprises many stories, (indeed, many histories in fact) then Loach has poignantly and persuasively evoked one such powerful history. To label The Spirit of ’45 as propaganda is to miss the universality of its message. And in our current age when food banks are becoming ubiquitous at the same time as corporate elites wilfully avoid tax and state-bailed banks continue to pay huge bonuses, Loach expertly depicts the social evils of capitalism and the continuing need for resistance. It may lack the greater historical honesty of other Loach films such as Land and Freedom, but in an age of cut backs, The Spirit of ’45 brilliantly urges us to fight back. The faith it places in working people to seize control of their own economic and social power, is surely one that resonates stronger than ever today.