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Spirit of '45A missed opportunity

The Spirit of ’45 by Ken Loach is excellent in parts but in the end looks backwards rather than forwards.

Review by Paul Feldman

Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ‘45 harks back to the historic moment at the end of World War II when the working and middle classes combined to turf out the Tories and elect a majority Labour government for the first time.

This somewhat uneven and eclectic documentary captures the momentum that led to a landslide victory, much to the shock of the wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill. He infamously compared Labour to the Gestapo during the campaign.

The “spirit” of 1945 was, in essence, a class consciousness transformed by the war that found its expression through the ballot box while in other countries it took an open revolutionary form.

Soldiers who had defeated Nazi Germany, in particular, voted in large majorities for Labour candidates at polling booths on the now silent battlefields. Many had taken part in solders’ “parliaments” where the post-war future was openly discussed.

They were simply not prepared to return to civilian life that, before 1939, was characterised by poverty, mass unemployment, appalling housing and little in the way of health care.

Emboldened by the victory of the Red Army, which had borne the brunt of the fighting, the mood was anything but conciliatory. At home, workers – especially women – had had enough of the Tories.

The documentary quotes sections of Labour’s manifesto and shows how the policies were implemented. Building on the Beveridge report, the national health service was created along with a mass housing programme and welfare benefits.

Heavy industries were nationalised, in most cases with the old management staying in control. Labour, to all intents and purposes, restored a bankrupt British capitalism that required state support to get going again.

Labour won a second election in 1950, but saw its overall majority fall to five from 146. A year later, Churchill was back as prime minister and the Tories remained in office until 1964. Most of Labour’s policies were maintained until a new type of Tory prime minister took the stage in 1979.

The second half of The Spirit of ’45 focuses on the anti-union policies of the Thatcher government, which privatised state-owned industries, went to war with the miners during the 1984-5 strike for jobs and began introducing the market into public services.

Why did the Thatcherites do this? Was it because Tories hate workers? If so, why did the Tory governments of 1951-64 essentially leave things alone? Some interviews suggest that changes in the global economy drove the Thatcher government, while others indicate it was Tory revenge for 1945.

The documentary more or less ends in the mid-1990s. This unfortunately leaves the 13 years of New Labour out of the equation, when the Blair-Brown governments deepened the policies of the Thatcher regime. The present ConDem attacks on the NHS and welfare benefits are built on Labour’s.

Although Loach himself is highly critical of Labour when he speaks, the strong implication of the film is that a renewal/revival of the spirit of 1945 is the way forward.

A repeat political performance is simply out of the question, given the transformation of Labour into the party of “responsible capitalism” and under conditions of global crisis. The parliamentary route is a cul-de-sac as far as the aspirations of ordinary people are concerned.

That’s a major change and it begs the question of what kind of political expression the mass change in consciousness that is taking shape will have to find.

The Spirit of ’45 is excellent as far as it goes, although a real weakness is a lack of diversity among those interviewed. You can’t help feeling this was a missed opportunity to move from nostalgia for another era to pointing to a future beyond capitalism.

20 March 2013

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