Spirit of ‘45

Directed by Ken Loach
FACT Cinema
Showing from 15th March 2013

Reviewed by John Owen

The quiet revolution that created the welfare state as we know it came into existence with the post war 1945 election of a Labour government and a pledge to carry out socialism. This film portrays the dream of a victorious Britain that has won the war and now fights to win the peace.

Ken Loach has produced a film of lyrical quality that flows from the utter waste and despair of total industrial decline, unemployment, poverty, hunger, disease and ill health of the 30s to the Second World War. Then comes a sort of renaissance and regeneration: total elation and jubilation at the prospect of a radical change in human attitudes and affairs, away from profiteering and a government of the people for the people, posing the question: am I not my brothers’ and sisters’ keeper? The Beveridge Report, a plan mooted before the end of the war, proposed a more equal society by eradicating the 5 giants: poverty, war, ignorance, want and disease.

Where has that spirit gone? What was it like before? And why the sudden rupture with the past? The slow erosion of those gains such as the NHS is documented with narratives from people here in Liverpool. If you don’t see the necessity for it, then you don’t fight for it - people have to hear the heart rending conditions of our parents or grandparents as they struggled with the cost of health.

5 shillings to get a doctor to call out and the panel list if you were lucky to be employed; this however only covered the breadwinner, so mother and children did without. High mortality rates among children was common: one old timer speaks dispassionately about losing two young siblings at two and four, while an old miner talks of losing his religion after the death of his mother for want of medical care.

The changes meant a program of massive slum clearance going on till the 60s in Liverpool. This brought the sunlight possibility of decent housing for all, a healthy city environment and good, well planned space to live. However, the recently overthrown party of the rich - Churchill’s Tory party, which enshrined greed, privileges and all that crap from the past - regained control in the 50s and began to reverse, obstruct, or slow down this egalitarian spirit.

Change had happened: the birth of the NHS in 1948, along with the nationalisation of the mines, railways, all transport, steel, coal, electricity, water and all essential services gave people hope. Here was a vision of common ownership of the means of production. Yet the fine detail revealed in the interviews shows a different picture: plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose - the more things change the more they stay the same.

The style of the film reminded me of Warren Beatty’s REDS, a film based on the life of John Reed who covered the Russian revolution and is the only American buried in the Kremlin. Action is intermingled with reflections and memories of what it was all like before, during and after, by people who have struggled for the cause of Labour and equality for all.

I liked the tales of people with their dry working class humour, their observation on the rise of Thatcherism: a free market concept that seriously undermined all the previous gains through privatisation. Under Tony Blair even Labour had ditched Clause Four of its program, which was influenced by the Russian Revolution, calling for public ownership of the means of production. New Labour - pink not red - was a pale reflection of the spirit and dreams of 45.

The film was followed by a Q+A session with several of the participants in the film, along with the director, answering queries from the audience. Topics like do we need a new party? Should the unions stop funding the Labour Party? How to link bedroom tax campaigns to the wider union movement?

A good evening: interesting film, good people - salt of the earth - and some peppery questions fired at Ken. By the way, the film was shown in Berlin to a standing ovation. It and will be on at Fact on the 17th March as well as going on general release on the 15th March.

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