The spirit of ’45

Art & Culture

Ken Loach’s new film is a documentary. It is also a didactic polemic and an impassioned cri de coeur for the beliefs he has cherished all his adult life. How you respond to it may depend on what you feel about these beliefs. I admire the man and I respect his views, though I don’t share them.

The film is a history lesson, almost all in black and white, including the contemporary interviews, and the views the film espouses are also black and white. It starts with a retrospective of the pre-WW2 period, in which poverty, lack of opportunity, universal health care and privilege were dominant, then moves to the immediate post-War weeks, when there was a General Election at which Churchill and the Conservative party were obliterated, and the Labour Party under Clement Attlee had a victory as resounding as that of the same party under Blair 52 years later.

The film then goes into some detail about how the various dramatic reforms came into being – the National Health Service under Nye Bevan; the taking into public ownership of the mines, the transport system, the docks and other critical industries. Men and women who were alive at the time offer their views, as well as others who have been selected as experts on the subject in question.

The Labour government was defeated in 1951, and there followed 13 years of Conservative rule, then another 16 years of chopping and changing, before the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher were elected in 1979. Loach chooses to cut from the defeat of 1951 to the Thatcher victory in 1979, since it is she above all and the government she ran, that he holds responsible for the unravelling of the achievements of the 1945-51 Labour government. After the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1984/5, the railways were also denationalised (under John Major, mind you), and the beginnings of the privatisation of the NHS began. And in 2013, we have a situation which Loach regards as the almost complete defeat of socialism that was preeminent in 1945. Even the Labour party, from his perspective, has fallen into the hands of the middle classes, and is no more socialist than Rupert Murdoch is.

And that is the thesis. As for solutions, they are short on the ground, although there is a general sense that if power could be returned to the working class, that would be a good thing. As would Bath City winning the Champions League and Bob Dylan appearing on The X Factor.

The thing with this film is that it is almost impossible to talk about it simply as a film, although I will try to start by doing so. There is a lot of wonderful footage that has been uncovered (Ken’s favourite is Churchill being heckled at an election meeting), and many of the talking heads are articulate and interesting. The sense of a zeitgeist, of a country taking unprecedented steps towards equality is powerful and credible. Indeed, I share a lot of Loach’s views, that that 1945 government was important and brave, just as I share his loathing for Mrs Thatcher then and still.

But within that overall framework, there are an awful lot of details left unmentioned. Many of the flaws that later undid the Socialist dawn were embedded within the government that implemented the radical changes in the first place. And while Thatcher undoubtedly was a divisive and confrontational PM, she and her government were elected three times in a row – most decisively when she stood against Michael Foot, the most left wing leader Labour had in years. And yes, the media were and are unfailingly anti-progressive, but it is mainly working class and lower middle class people who buy and believe the Sun, The Mail and the Express.

Indeed, the class analysis itself is somewhat outdated. Who are the working class people who should have power returned to them? The millions who don’t bother to vote in the first place? The world has changed beyond recognition in the last 70 years. There are no longer millions of men in flat caps and women in head scarves going to work in mines, shipyards and steel mills. That may or may not be a tragedy, but they simply aren’t there. Service industries provide most of the employment nowadays. And while we can all regret the huge influence that the media have over people’s views, it is hard to see how that will ever change.

As you can see from the above, this is a film that anyone with an interest in post-war politics should see, even if it is only to argue and disagree, and to give him his due, Loach is always happy to engage in passionate debate. I also admire him for having stood foursquare behind his beliefs for so long, while the political landscape has shifted so dramatically. This is a film that comes from the heart, and should be viewed as such. I would love contemporary politicians to see it, and explain why they agree and disagree with it. I would love it to be the basis for serious and prolonged debate. It deserves respect, and I don’t mean George Galloway.


Phil Raby