The VE Day image that opens and closes ‘The Spirit of ’45’
The Labour landslide election victory of 1945 has attained an iconic, almost mythical stature in the memory of the British left. It was the first election in which Labour gained a majority of seats, and also the first time it won a plurality of votes – another 68,767 votes and the party would have gained over 50% of all the votes cast. Ken Loach’s latest film, The Spirit of ’45, aims to recapture the heady excitement of a time infused with the idea that the people who had won World War II together could build the peace together.
I was born three years later, a beneficiary of the programme of reforms introduced by Clement Atlee’s government. There was milk for me as a baby and later at school, orange juice and cod-liver oil growing up, and free visits to the dentist and doctor. Later, The significance of that election victory would sink in as I heard my parents talk about their experiences in the inter-war years – leaving school at 14 with no chance of gaining an academic education, my dad’s periods of unemployment in the thirties, the hardship and poverty. But what had the most impact on a young mind was the story of their teeth: curious about why they both had sets of false teeth (which I would find floating in glasses of water at their bedside in the mornings), they told me how it was common for working class people with bad teeth, faced with dental charges, to simply have the lot removed. They had done this while still in their twenties.
So I should have been highly receptive to Ken Loach’s film, but I have to confess to a sense of disappointment after watching it. I think there are several reasons. Firstly, the film has the weary feel of a TV documentary, utilising clips that have been used to illustrate the thirties in more TV documentaries than you can name. Second, though Loach tells the story of the Attlee government’s achievements largely through filmed interviews with workers in the newly nationalised industries or those who benefited for the first time from free medical attention and decent housing, only a few of these reminiscences come across in a really engaging way. Another problem is the film’s structure: a sudden jump to Thatcher’s 1979 election victory introduces a second half which details the way in which the achievements of 1945 have been steadily dismantled since the 1980s, through curtailment of trade union powers, privatisation, the sale of council houses, and the erosion of public services generally. Nothing wrong in that – it’s just that it’s not done that well. Finally, the film’s argument about what all this means now is muddled and contradictory.
After setting the scene with footage of the surprise and excitement that greeted the 1945 election result (encapsulated in newsreel footage that is actually of the VE day celebrations in Trafalgar Square a few weeks earlier, footage that opens and closes the film – see the still at head of this post), Loach heads back to the Depression years to trace the origins of the wave of left-wing political sentiment that swept Labour to power. I can see that historical background was necessary, but this section of the film has a tired, seen it all before feel, utilising clips that have been used to illustrate the thirties in more TV documentaries than you can name.
Loach’s account of the achievements of Atlee’s government is thorough, enlivened by interviews with individuals, now in their eighties or nineties, who either recall the halcyon moment when socialist equality and common ownership seemed as possible as the prospect of jobs for all, free medical attention, and decent housing for all; or tell, from their own experience, how much the Labour policies changed their life and those of their family.
There’s a moment early in the film when we see Clem Attlee, buoyed by the news that his party has triumphed in the election, announcing to a packed Westminster Central Hall that he intends to lead ‘a Labour movement with a socialist policy’ and being cheered to the rafters. After the film, I dug out Labour’s 1945 manifesto on the Internet and, in today’s world of triangulation and tacking to the centre ground, it makes for remarkable reading:
The anti-controllers and anti-planners desire to sweep away public controls, simply in order to give the profiteering interests and the privileged rich an entirely free hand to plunder the rest of the nation as shamelessly as they did in the nineteen-twenties.
Does freedom for the profiteer mean freedom for the ordinary man and woman, whether they be wage-earners or small business or professional men or housewives? Just think back over the depressions of the 20 years between the wars, when there were precious few public controls of any kind and the Big Interests had things all their own way. Never was so much injury done to so many by so few.[…]
The ‘hard-faced men’ and their political friends kept control of the Government. They controlled the banks, the mines, the big industries, largely the press and the cinema. They controlled the means by which the people got their living. They controlled the ways by which most of the people learned about the world outside.
Freedom is not an abstract thing. To be real it must be won…
Loach neatly contrasts Clement Attlee’s rapturous reception with footage of Churchill looking confused as he’s heckled by a crowd during the election campaign. But where had the openness to socialist ideas come from? The answer, partly, is that it was more a powerful, generalised hunger for a fair society, bred in the hardship of the inter-war years, and already encapsulated in the Beveridge Report of 1942 and the Education Act of 1944 (the latter, implemented by the Labour government, strangely overlooked in Loach’s film – yet it probably had as big an impact on working class life as the other measures).
But Loach touches on another source for the radical spirit of ’45, one with which I’m familiar through my father’s wartime experience. A crucial part in Labour’s election victory was played by rank and file members of the armed forces, who had been encouraged to attend discussions on politics and current affairs organised by the Bureau of Current Affairs and the Armed Forces Educational Corps. In Egypt my father, a pacifist and conscientious objector was assigned the job of organising adult education classes and discussion groups, and he would tell me later how these were often concerned with questions about the kind of society to which the men hoped to return.
The personal stories told by Loach’s interviewees (who are filmed in black and white, making the cuts between the interviews and old newsreel footage appear seamless) bring to life film’s account of the measures enacted by Labour. There’s 90-year-old Eileen Thomson and her memories of accompanying her shop steward dad to the Liverpool docks, while 88-year-old Sam Watts recalls how he and his his siblings slept in a vermin-infested bed in their Liverpool home in the ’20s and ’30s.
Most moving of all, and illustrative of the personal pride that people took in the post-war developments, is the sight of Deborah Garvie unfolding the letter her grandfather received telling him that he had been assigned a council house in Stevenage New Town; as a building worker he had helped create the town, and he carried the letter, folded in his wallet, until the day he died.
Ray Jackson, a former train driver, describes his delight and amazement when his family moved into their new council house with its French windows and indoor facilities. ‘There was all this light! And there were stairs! And a bathroom!’ Harry Keen remembers the pleasure he felt the day he visited a mother worried she couldn’t afford his services as a doctor or the medicines he prescribed for her child. It was the day the National Health Service was inaugurated and he was able to say to her, ‘Today, July the 5th, it’ll cost you nothing!’
We hear miners and railwaymen talk of their elation at the idea that ‘at last we’re going to take charge of our own lives’. Ray Davies, a retired Welsh miner, recalls his whole community ‘cheering, laughing, singing, dancing’ at the news that the mines were being nationalised, and seeing some of his hardened fellow miners, men who ‘were rough and… tough, they would take anything the bosses ever threw at them’, with tears rolling down their cheeks.
The achievements of the 1945 Labour government are all the more impressive considering the state of the British economy in 1945, after six years of war had decimated Europe, laid waste to most of its major towns and cities, destroyed its industrial capacity, and smashed its infrastructure. Britain had been left with a national debt of 225% of GDP, an unsustainable empire, and had exhausted its overseas investments and gold and dollar reserves. Chastening facts looking back from our age of austerity – though it was loans from America, fearing communist advances in western Europe, that made it possible.
The achievements of the ’45 Labour government have largely been written out of our history. From near economic collapse we took leading industries into public ownership and established the Welfare State. Generosity, mutual support and co-operation were the watch words of the age. It is time to remember the determination of those who were intent on building a better world.
– Ken Loach
But as far as public ownership goes, Loach’s politics mean that he must qualify his rosy picture. As Tony Benn observes, the whole process was inherently top-down, and ‘the idea that people who worked in an industry had any say in how the industry was run was completely foreign’. An ex-miner remembers his disgust at seeing Lord Hyndley, a prominent mine-owner who had campaigned long and vehemently against nationalisation, being made chairman of the National Coal Board. ‘What sort of nationalisation have we got? The same old gang back in power!’
The second part of the film shifts the scene abruptly to 1979, with the victorious Margaret Thatcher quoting Francis of Assisi in outside 10 Downing Street: ‘Where there is discord, may we bring harmony… Where there is despair, may we bring hope’. The film now becomes a hurried survey of key elements of the welfare state have been dismantled in the years since Thatcher came to power – council houses sold off, the privatisation of state-owned industries, and the slow erosion of the NHS. Loach focusses, too, on the key defeats for working-class and trade union power: the miners’ strike of 1984 and the Liverpool dockers’ strike of 1995.
It’s this part of the film that is the least satisfactory: it never really gets to grip with the economic forces that have brought these changes about. Nor is it clear how Loach envisages resistance to these changes occurring. In the film’s concluding moments we see shots of recent protests by Occupy and UK Uncut as ‘Jerusalem’ swells on the soundtrack. Yet this seems irrelevant in a film that has celebrated a parliamentary victory for socialist policies, one achieved largely because, in 1945, a united industrial working class represented a majority in British society. That is not the case today: the old industries are gone, and the old working class communities hollowed out and shattered.
By implication, Ken Loach’s film seems to be problematic in the same way as Owen Jones’ book Chavs, which I read recently. Both seem to hark back nostalgically to a time when working class communities were close-knit and imbued with the values of collectivism and solidarity. Today, though, that world has changed almost beyond recognition. There is still a working class, but the work is of a different nature, carried out in very different circumstances and settings. Will a programme like that of 1945 emerge from issue-based campaigns like Uncut, or from the new proletariat slaving away in call centres and Amazon distribution centres? Or will it arise out of a consensus built across class divides which believes that public ownership and a society built on equality for all is the best way forward? Who knows? Spirit of ’45, with its implication that we can recreate the halcyon days of 1945, doesn’t answer the question for all its compassion for working people and its belief in their right to be treated fairly, share in the common wealth, and have jobs, free medicine, and decent houses. It’s a prayer, just like Billy Bragg’s ‘Between the Wars’ – but Bragg’s song was written nearly thirty years ago:
I was a miner
I was a docker
I was a railway man
Between the wars
I raised a family
In times of austerity
With sweat at the foundry
Between the wars
I paid the union and as times got harder
I looked to the government to help the working man
And they brought prosperity down at the armoury
“We’re arming for peace me boys”
Between the wars
I kept the faith and I kept voting
Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand
For theirs is a land with a wall around it
And mine is a faith in my fellow man
Theirs is a land of hope and glory
Mine is the green field and the factory floor
Theirs are the skies all dark with bombers
And mine is the peace we knew
Between the wars
Call up the craftsmen
Bring me the draughtsmen
Build me a path from cradle to grave
And I’ll give my consent
To any government
That does not deny a man a living wage
Go find the young men never to fight again
Bring up the banners from the days gone by
Heart of this nation
Desert us not, we are
Between the wars
Watch it here on Top of the Pops in 1985 (it got to 15 in the charts); would we see this on peak-time TV today? A great protest song, one of Dorian Lynskey’s chosen 33.