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Britain's days of hope -- Ken Loach's 'The Spirit of ’45' reviewed

Ken Loach discusses The Spirit of '45.

Left-wing film director Ken Loach is at the centre of a movement for a new left party in Britain that is committed to defending and extending the welfare state and uncompromisingly fighting austerity. More than 8000 people have signed his appeal for such a party. A vital component of this campaign has been the success of his new documentary, The Spirit of '45.

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April 2013 -- Red Pepper -- Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45 is not just an exercise in nostalgia but a compelling intervention into the politics of the present, writes Alex Nunns.

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 British Labour Party government were possible thanks to the buoyancy created by waves of hope and empowerment that flowed through society after the Second World 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 National Health Service (NHS). This long reversal has expelled from contemporary mainstream politics ideas that in 1945 were considered commonsense. 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 longstanding 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 general practitioner, 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 Party 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 Nye 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 the Labour Party’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. Alex Nunns is Red Pepper's political correspondent. He tweets at @alexnunns.]

Reflections on Ken Loach, "The Spirit of '45"

"We have been the dreamers, we have been the sufferers, now we are the builders" -- Nye Bevan, May 1945

March 24, 2013 -- Socialist Resistance -- What a remarkable achievement by Ken Loach to produce a film that is having such a positive political impact writes Dave Kellaway.

Unlike nearly all other film directors, Ken is not just a film maker but somebody who intervenes regularly in the political debate and supports real struggles. His only rival might be Michael Moore on the other side of the Atlantic, but with all due respect the latter’s politics are a little less developed. Many filmmakers make films with progressive messages that inspire people to think critically about the world but they usually keep well away from the messy world of politics. Apart from anything else, such engagement can make their next film’s funding problematic .

For this film Loach obviously worked in a collaborative way with a whole series of experienced political activists – nearly all of whom are clearly left of the British Labour Party. With them he has developed an articulated campaign for getting the biggest possible reaction to the movie. Hence the brilliant website packed with educational material that is understandable and accessible to the general public, students, teachers or activists. His media promotion was successful with appearances on BBC Question Time, Newsnight, morning TV and radio as well as the Evening Standard. Then there was the launch in 40 cinemas with a live Q and A session.

He has put himself forward as a promoter of the campaign for the June 22 People’s Assembly against Austerity, which is almost a political sequel to the film. He encouraged people to distribute material at all the screenings. Finally he has made a public appeal for a new left party which 2000 people signed up to after one week (now more than 8000). Again, although this call is not crudely put into the film, it is a logical conclusion to the points made by most of the participants towards the end.

Apart from showing Ken Loach and his team’s political skills, the whole operation just shows the space that exists for a new left party and the sort of political intervention we could be making through such a party. Already in the film you see the sort of people, coming from different political traditions, that could be among the cadre or leaders of a left party, even if some of them are not necessarily enthusiastic at the moment for this project (e.g. CounterFire).

Bureaucratic authoritarianism

The film is also politically astute in the way it reaches out to people who have different judgements on the utility of the current Labour Party. It is the opposite of sectarian. It could easily have shown more explicitly how the whole way in which the welfare state was set up was a classic example of the limits of bureaucratic social democracy, that the rule of capital was shaken a little but not really challenged, indeed that capitalism itself benefited from the planned rebuilding of the infrastructure in those years.

You could also have explained in more detail how the lack of independent working-class self-organisation meant the welfare state was never really owned or run by working people. Consequently given the difficult economic conditions, it was easy for the Tories to return in the next general election since the Labour government was identified with the continued rationing, a certain bureaucratic authoritarianism and with austerity.

Yet that would have been a different film for a different purpose or period. Today many of the fortresses of the labour movement have been dismantled through deindustrialisation and defeat. Union membership is half what it was in the 1970s and we all know what has happened to the Labour Party. In many ways we are at a rebuilding phase of the labour movement.

A large part of the population are just factually unaware of the significance of the founding of the welfare state. People under the age of 40 cannot even remember when electricity, gas, coal, rail, iron and steel, road haulage, telephones and so on were publicly owned. My daughter, who is 21, saw the film with me and was amazed about how much could be changed in such a relatively short period of time. Several generations have been brought up on the Thatcher and Blairite ideology of public sector equals wasteful and inefficient and the private market and entrepreneur as being effective and dynamic.

The current crisis is lifting some of these illusions but vivid lessons from history put some flesh on a possible alternative. People need to grasp the fundamentals of the difference between the spirit of '45 and the neoliberal ideology and offensive led by Thatcher and continued by Labour's Tony Blair. So this is the right film for this period, the art of politics is all about timing.

Indeed the strength of the film is the way it makes government policies and projects such as the NHS or house building into processes that go to the heart of people’s lives – to health, shelter, security. Key statements about the reforms are interspersed with wonderfully edited interviews with working people who explain how they slept five to a flea-ridden bed or how profit in the mines led workers not to shore up the tunnels resulting in needless deaths.

A doctor recounts how after the formation of the NHS the women he was visiting still could not understand that he would be able to see the other member of her family who was ill because it was now all free. A south Wales miner movingly talks of the death of his mother in childbirth through lack of care. Anger, hope and celebration are all there but also some bitterness is expressed at the limits of the change where for example the brutal private coal managers are recycled into the leadership of the National Coal Board.

50,000 strong Communist Party

The visual documentary evidence was made up of the old newsreel and official government film extracts that would be familiar to many of us who have seen earlier TV documentaries, but they have been edited together in fresh way and included some most people would not have seen, such as Winston Churchill being booed at an open air meeting by Labour supporters. Interestingly, many of the key official propaganda wartime films were made by Communist Party or left Labour people working in that unit.

There was little local mobilisation for the welfare-state changes in terms of committees or workers organising in those sectors. However, the officially sanctioned civics meetings organised in the armed forces in the final year of the war and while people were waiting for demobilisation did provide an opportunity for mass political debate. Left-inclined servicepeople often pushed the discussion on support for a no return to the 1930s and the need to win the peace with social improvements. An example is shown in the film.

We should also remember that the 50,000-strong Communist Party was at its height at this stage and worked to push the Labour Party to the left. Russia retained a certain prestige among the working class and reinforced popular support for the social efficiency of planning. People also linked victory over the Nazis to the government direction of the economy and of rationing. So the film shows the material underpinning of the "spirit of '45" that working together and planning could bring results. There was a temporary coalescence between a sense of nationalism and socially progressive measures

Overlaid on the images from time to time are quotes from LabourP arty manifestos or its program. These statements could easily be rallying calls for the struggle against austerity today but the Labour Party has long since abandoned such positions and under Tony Blair it deleted the "Clause 4" statement about being a socialist party aimed at taking over production.

A final component of the film are the analyses made by writers, historians, economists and veteran workers' movement activists such as John Rees, James Meadway, Ralphie Dos Santos, Dot Gibson, Alan Thornett and Tony Richardson. This allows Loach to connect the historical story to the current capitalist crisis and to possible political alternatives. Otherwise the documentary could have become an exercise in nostalgia.

Ken Loach has regularly managed to produce works of art on TV or the cinema that are engaging narratives, but unlike most film directors he expresses working-class lives and struggles in an unsentimental but positive way.

As with the Cathy Come Home TV film, which led to the creation of Shelter the housing charity, he has managed to have a massive political impact. The Spirit of '45 is beginning to produce at least a very strong ripple within the ranks of people who are opposed to austerity and do not think that the Labour Party can play the positive role it did in the post-war settlement between capital and labour that resulted in the welfare state.

Loach leaves us with a lyrical sense of hope as the black and white newsreel of young people celebrating in a London fountain is transformed into technicolour and a young woman raises her eyes and arm to the sky with a radiant smile.

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