The release of Ken Loach’s documentary The Spirit Of ’45, a summary of the postwar Labour government’s efforts to ensure a fair deal for all the UK’s long-suffering working people through the setting up of the National Health Service and the nationalisation of most of the country’s infrastructure and industry, is pretty timely given the current administration’s attempts to demonise the poorest and most disadvantaged members of society and somehow make them the scapegoat for the massive deficit in public finances that actually came about through the irresponsible and largely unpunished behaviour of unregulated financial institutions. The film juxtaposes archive footage of ordinary people living their lives in deprived and often bomb-scarred communities against fascinating recent interviews with octagenarians who were employed as miners, dockers, railway workers, nurses and doctors at the time, and also includes extracts from political campaigns of the era together with analysis from social historians. The picture that emerges is one of a bankrupt and traumatised nation coming to the end of a sustained period of hardship (a ten year economic depression followed by six years of war) with the firm determination that the future must be better and fairer for all – to this end Labour scored a landslide victory over the revered but unelectably patrician Winston Churchill and to their credit for once actually achieved the bulk of their manifesto promises, with Aneurin Bevan particularly notable for making the National Health Service more genuinely comprehensive and accessible than anyone had imagined possible. All of Labour’s accomplishments are properly set in context in Loach’s film, with the sheer amazement and joy which one 87 year old man remembers on being able to afford a council house with an inside toilet standing out as an indication on how our expectations of baseline comfort have changed since then.
The bulk of Spirit is really engrossing, possibly because Loach avoids blatant editorialising and just lets his participant’s memories and impressions build up a portrait of a time when individual members of society found it natural to work together to improve conditions for everyone. It’s perhaps a bit unfortunate then that the film ends with a bluntly polemical section showing the undermining and eventual dismantling of key sections of the welfare state by the Thatcher government and its successors – it’s not that I don’t recognise the devastating effects that the decisions to abruptly curtail mining and manufacturing had on the communities involved, but they’re presented here as a series of callous acts with no rationale or context and this part of the film is unlikely to change the mind of anyone watching who’s already suspicious of moaning lefties. Loach ends with a series of interviews with NHS workers past and present in which they make clear their opposition to the increasing marketisation of the service, and it’s to be hoped that this film will at least help focus resistance to what sometimes seems like an inevitable erosion of some of this country’s hard-won principles of equality.