The Spirit of ’45? How about a spirit for now?

The Spirit of ’45 is the latest film from veteran British director Ken Loach.  This documentary plots the post-war period of social democracy, welfare state and nationalised industries by talking to people who lived through the changes.  There’s a smattering of old Labour politicians to add insight from the inside and the interviews are mixed with archive footage.  Presented in monochrome the effect is to provide a narrative that is smooth in style as it zips between archive material and the modern day interviews.

The interviews themselves are generally with people who can remember what it was like living in the UK between the world wars and the period after the Second World War.  They recount the horrors of the slums as the film pushes towards explaining why so many people wanted a different kind of life once the Second World War was over.  Labour won the 1945 election and started to put progressive policies into action but whilst the film is strong on talking up the benefits of the new welfare state, NHS and nationalised industry that was the product of the time it is particularly weak when looking at the pitfalls.  There is little mention of the extreme poverty and austerity of the immediate post-war years, of rationing well into the 1950s and of nationalised industry being run by Labour’s professional elite.  There is little mention of the UK’s position in the world as a dwindling empire and one in which the vast majority of people never enjoyed the spoils of plunder or indeed knew of the horrors being committed in their names.  It is presented on the whole as a time of improved housing, wages and health.  There is one section in the film, presumably included for balance, where mine workers discuss the fact that nationalisation really meant swapping corporate bosses for state ones but this point is fleeting and not taken up for discussion.

This overall message of the film is as monochrome as the look.  It starts with shots of people in London celebrating the end of war in black and white archive pictures before moving to the interviews, also in black and white.  All the interviewees are of a certain age, as you would perhaps expect, and this gives a one dimensional feel to the piece.  The aim of the film seems to be to say that we need the spirit of 45 for our current troubled times.  However, in harking back in such a one sided way it fails to conjure up a spirit for 2013 or account for why politics and economics are so different today but it could have been different.  Where are the young voices?  Why is everything presented in black and white?  At the end of the film Loach returns us to the young woman dancing in London in 1945 but this time we see her in colour meaning that much of the archive material and of course the interviews themselves could have been shown in this way.  As such the film lacks a vibrancy much needed in 2013 and sadly missing from much of the mainstream left as it scrabbles around criticising austerity but failing to provide an alternative vision or spirit even.

Anyone familiar with the director’s previous work will be aware of the subtlety he can bring and the powerful nature of his dramas.  For example the scene in Land and Freedom where a group of locals set up a communal farm took ad libbing from the extras genuinely grappling with how that might work in practice and neatly fitted it into the plot of the film creating a slightly surreal but compelling segment in the narrative.  The Spirit of ’45 is a very different type of film but there are many examples of documentary makers providing twists and turns in the narrative and inventive solutions in terms of telling the story.  There are slim pickings in this case unfortunately.

However this is a film that will please a great many people.  Nostalgia, whilst not being what it used to be, is being clung to by many in an era bereft of big political ideas.  Meanwhile Loach himself also commands a great deal of respect on the left for his films spanning decades of largely socialist drama.  Viewers wedded to the notion of labourism (where trade unions support a party into power) will feel pleased to see this idea being given an airing in the Spirit of ‘45.  It adds context to the current debate in the Labour Party where the unions are once again being pushed into the corner and made to face the wall until they learn how to behave properly.  The film shows a powerful example of what political parties and unions can do in terms of benefiting the vast majority.  It does fall down though on making the Labour Party look like the only game in town when it comes to this mysterious ‘spirit’.  It’s worth bearing in mind that the Tory Party could not ignore the spirit and when it got back into power it nationalised the steel industry.  In fact between 1945 and the start of the Thatcher years the Tories were in power and therefore presiding over the welfare state for roughly half the time.  The post-war consensus of mixed market economy, welfare and high employment included both major parties, trade unions and other institutions such as the press.  This is hard to believe since free market capitalism took hold and neoliberalism became the dominant force in politics.  Watching this film could leave you thinking that Labour had governed from 1945 until Thatcher came to power in 1979 and the great dismantling began.

This film would have been better talking about now but learning from the past and infusing the spirit of ’45 into modern times.  The left needs to learn from the mistakes of the past.  In ’45 it was inevitable that the working class received something following war.  The Beveridge Report of 1942 sealed the deal and that deal was cross-party.  People trusted Labour and yet here we are with neoliberalism and politicians who have dismantled everything.  The answer to these problems is not to hark back and to make the same mistake of building another working class party or indeed hoping to turn Labour leftwards.  The answer, which might have come out had Loach interviewed anyone under 60 might have been very different.  Most of us don’t join political parties anymore.  We tend not to want to grapple within a hierarchy just to get our views across.  We don’t want a spirit of ’45, we want a spirit for now which provides inspiration from a shared vision of the future, not from flawed examples in the past.  The spirit of 45 can get you only so far.  In itself that is a useful lesson for us all but I wish it had been presented in a more vibrant, exciting format and been more forward looking.


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