Reflections on Ken Loach, The Spirit of 45

Nye Bevan was no Ed Miliband

Nye Bevan was no Ed Miliband

‘We have been the dreamers, we have been the sufferers, now we are the builders’ Nye Bevan, May 1945

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 is 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 ‘one nation’ labour.  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 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 22nd 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 have already signed up to after one week. 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. John Rees from 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 70s and we all know what has happened to Labour. In many ways we are at a rebuilding phase of the labour movement.  A large part of the population, particularly those 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 th spirit of 45 and the neo-liberal ideology and offensive led by Thatcher and continued by 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 NCB.

50,000 strong Communist Party

The visual documentary  evidence was made up of  the old newsreel  and official government film extracts which would be familiar to many of us who have seen earlier TV documentaries but they were edited together in  fresh way and included some most people would not have seen such as 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 servicemen often pushed the discussion on support for no return to the 30s 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 Labour 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 were quotes from Labour party manifestos or its programme.  These statements could easily be rallying calls for the struggle against austerity today but Labour has long since abandoned such positions and under 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 allowed Loach to connect the historical story to the current 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 which are engaging narratives but unlike most film directors he expresses working class lives and struggles in an unsentimental but positive way.  Once before 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.  Perhaps 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 Labour can even play the positive role it did in the post war settlement between capital and labour that resulted in the welfare state.  He leaves us with a lyrical sense of hope as the black and while 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.

The Spirit of 45 is still showing in selected cinemas nationwide and is also available to be hired for one off screenings. A DVD will be released in April.

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