Ken Loach’s latest film opens with joyous celebration. It’s 1945 and Britain has emerged victorious from years of conflict with Germany. There is dancing in the streets and a sense of communal achievement.
Yet May 1945 did not mark the end of Britain’s troubles. The urban landscape had been ravaged by bombs, and much of the remaining inner city housing was not worth keeping. Millions of British people were living in dreadful conditions: filthy, overcrowded slums with woefully inadequate toilet facilities. Loach employs a series of moving testimonies to illustrate the poverty of the time. One man speaks of how he slept alongside his siblings in a bed infested with insects, while another recounts hearing his mother dying in childbirth for want of adequate medical provision.
Within months of VE Day, a general election was held. Despite leading Britain throughout the war, Churchill lost in favour of a landslide Labour victory. The war effort had proven that the nation could achieve anything if they worked together, and the public were determined that Britain would not be dragged back to the thirties. The openly socialist agenda which Clement Attlee and the Labour Party were offering promised a brighter future for the working man. In a combination of archive footage and black and white interviews, The Spirit of ’45 tells the story of Labour’s radical reform of British industries and services.
Loach introduces key moments in the history of the welfare state up to the present day, from the nationalisation of the mines, transport, electricity and gas networks in the late forties to the push for renewed privatisation under Thatcher. Considerable attention is also given to the NHS in the wake of the 2012 Health and Social Care Bill. The documentary features interviews with retired and current health professionals who criticise the cost-cutting measures used by private contractors, which they believe limit the quality of care.
A lot has changed in the world since 1945, when Britain was ripe for socialism. The manufacturing industries were still thriving, and thousands of men found jobs rebuilding the damaged infrastructure and creating ‘new towns’. Most women did not expect to be employed; enslaved as they were in domesticity. But Labour’s successful and popular programme of reforms was as much about an ethos of community as about favourable conditions. The idea of each man as his ‘brother’s keeper’ was one which resonated with the public.
The Spirit of ’45 made me feel angry, in a good way. At times the film does feel like propaganda, although the excellent accompanying website offers an unbiased timeline and links to alternative political commentaries. In fact, little reference is made to the Labour party of today, other than one interviewee lamenting that it has been hijacked by the middle class. ‘The working class don’t realise their own power’, he says. ‘They no longer have a representative.’
The film ends with a rallying cry for a return to socialist ideals, imploring senior citizens to speak to young people about the past, and their potential to effect change. The Spirit of ’45 is a film with a sense of its own importance; a film which begs to be seen. Sadly, with some cinema ticket prices pushing a tenner, most of the parents of the 3.6 million children living in poverty in the UK today will not be able to afford to see it.