The Spirit of ‘45

Image: Spirit of 45

A brief notice for The Spirit of '45, a fine new political documentary directed by Ken Loach, currently showing for a week or so at selected cinemas. I saw it at the Cameo Picturehouse in Edinburgh on Sunday, and it's currently on at the Filmhouse.

Whatever one's politics, the film can be appreciated as a powerful polemic regarding the capacity of mainstream political parties to effect radical and lasting economic and social change.

Through fascinating archival footage and interviews with people who lived through the period, the film tells the story of the 1945-51 Labour government led by Clement Atlee that laid the foundations for the social democratic consensus that was to last till the global economic upheavels of the mid to late 1970s opened the way for the election of the liberalising Conservative administrations of the 1980s.

The Atlee government implemented a comprehensive reform programme designed to ensure - for the first time - a measure of economic and social security for the great mass of the British people. Free housing and education were introduced. A 'cradle to grave' social security system was implemented encompassing unemployment benefits and a state pension. The National Health System was built to provide free health care. Natural monopolies such as the railways, gas, coal, electricity and the mail service were brought into public ownership to provide a secure infrastructure for economic growth. The excellent timeline on the film's website illustrates the full scope of the changes that were implemented.

As its title suggests the film is concerned more with the spirit of the age, the underlying motivations that animated that radical programme, than the detail of the legislation. In his director's statement, Ken Loach says:

We had won the war together, together we could win the peace. If we could plan to wage military campaigns, could we not plan to build houses, create a health service, transport system and to make goods that we needed for reconstruction?

The central idea was common ownership, where production and services were to benefit all. The few should not get rich to the detriment of everyone else. It was a noble idea, popular and acclaimed by the majority. It was the Spirit of 1945. Maybe it is time to remember it today.

The 1945 government was elected by a landslide majority, all the more notable because the Conservatives were headed by the great war leader Winston Churchill. Much as they respected Churchill the majority of the people wanted a government that would enact the legislation necessary to eliminate the extreme poverty and inequalities of the pre-war years. The war effort had provided visceral proof of what was possible through effective collective action. Now that spirit was to be applied in peacetime in pursuit of a 'New Jerusalem', to use a popular Blakean image from the period.

As the documentary notes, Atlee's Labour didn't achieve everything it set out to do. It only had the opportunity to establish the essentials of the a social security framework, and nationalisation swapped top-down control by private management with top-down control by bureaucrats: little progress was made in delegating power from boardrooms to worker councils. Britain wasn't transformed into a utopia, and there was opposition within as well as without the Labour Party to many elements of its agenda.

I didn't agree with everything. The film rightly shows the profound damage to many close knit communities wrought by the collapse of traditional industries such as mining and docking. While I agree that much more should have been done to support those affected to transition to new work, or, if too old, to retire honourably, it isn't clear to me that it would have been possible for government to continue to invest in industries subject to global economic shifts. The role of a compassionate state is to support its people in their pursuit of stable and fulfilling work, not preserve dying industries in aspic. And I don't think the pessimism expressed by Ken Loach and many of those interviewed about the plausibility of the contemporary Labour Party as a vehicle for change is very helpful (though entirely understandable): compromised as Labour is in so many ways, it remains the only political force in Britain capable of implementing significant progressive reform.

But the film serves its purpose by making clear the possibility that radical change can be effected by a party of the left. There are alternatives to prevailing neo-liberal orthodoxies. The desire for a more harmonious, egalitarian society isn't a pipe dream: we had one in the past, for all its imperfections, and in the 1945 government we have a model for what could practicably be done. Clearly contemporary issues require different policies from those that were applicable nearly 70 years ago. But the blueprint is there.

The issue for the left, of course, is that the 'spirit of 2013' is clearly rather different to that of 1945. The reforms of the post-war years were made possible by the continuation of a shared sense of purpose forged by the mortal threat presented by fascism. We don't have a similar sense of urgency. One might plausibly argue that climate change threatens an apocalypse of a rather different sort, but to most that still seems an abstract issue. And, intractable as the economic problems besetting us seem to be, poverty isn't as desperate as it was in the 1930s.

It may be that things have to get somewhat worse before a radical government might be given the opportunity to make things better. Continued austerity. Continuing dismantling of the welfare system and health service. And the onset of real ecological crisis. In the meantime I think we need more films like this one to help us break out of the despair and cynicism in which we currently seem imprisoned.