Ken Loach and The Spirit of ’45

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In this period when the living standards of the working class in Britain are being attacked, there is a rise in the call for new organisations and strategies to take a stand against the ruling class. FRFI is as committed as any in this country to the desperate need for a new movement to take a stand against the privatisation and destruction of the welfare state, the control of the corporations and the banks and the increasing poverty that have gained speed over the last 20 years under Labour and ConDem governments alike. It is not possible, however, to build resistance to the regime of austerity launched by the capitalist class without an honest political understanding of the forces at work against the people. This must include an honest record of the role of the British trade union movement and the Labour Party and their historic collusion with the state.

In Fight Racism Fight Imperialism 232 (April/May 2013) we published an article, ‘The dead end politics of Owen Jones’, which pointed to the serious limitations of his online call for a new movement on the left in Britain. Unsurprisingly Ken Loach has also made an online appeal for the formation of a new political party of the Left (Left Unity) to defend the welfare state and present an economic alternative to austerity. It has to be said that Ken Loach’s wish for a new grouping on the left is as politically weak and inadequate as that of Owen Jones. This is evident in his latest feature length film, The Spirit of ’45. Informative and entertaining as the film is, it fails to convince that ‘we should look to the past for a better future’ because it actually explains so little.

With the use of sombre black and white newsreel clips, the film illustrates the poverty, neglect and despair of large sections of the working class in the 1930s and 1940s when unemployment, slum housing and unaffordable medical care shortened and blighted the lives of millions. Public broadcasting announcements are combined with running commentaries over footage of the end of war in 1945 and the landslide election of a Labour government under Clement Atlee. The post-war implementation of the Beveridge Report (Beveridge himself stood as a Liberal candidate in 1945) laid the foundations for the welfare state. The nationalisations of many major industries including coal, steel, railways, electricity, are all illustrated with contemporary footage, much of which represents the joy of ordinary working people and the triumph of a technocratic political tendency which knew that post-war reconstruction could only be achieved by central planning for national purposes.

The Spirit of ’45 then moves to the grim story of the Thatcher governments in the 1980s: the attack on trade union rights, the destruction of the National Union of Mineworkers followed by the closure of most UK mines and the de-nationalisation and privatisation of industries and services like the railways, water and gas. The film’s coverage noticeably fades away when it reaches the New Labour years with the rush to outsource social services, education and health. Instead the film moves to a sentimental mood of reflection at the loss of the spirit of ’45 and class unity compared to today’s individualistic and consumerist society. Contributions from former Labour Cabinet Minister Tony Benn are of no interest. John Rees (Counterfire) generalises about workers’ control while Alan Thornett (Socialist Resistance) adds nothing.

As a support and guide for action today The Spirit of ’45 is seriously limited. There is no international context whatever in the film, no mention of the 1950 British military role in the Korean War (1950-53) which drained the Treasury and doubled defence expenditure. Prime Minister Atlee’s secret decision to produce a British nuclear weapons programme is ignored. There are no black people in the film, no reference to Commonwealth immigration and the arrival of the Windrush in 1948. The ‘Spirit of ’45’ did not extend to Britain’s former colonies and overseas interests where British imperialism, under the management of Labour, brutally crushed all opposition in countries like Kenya, Malaya and Hong Kong. Indeed, there is no history of the world outside of a victorious Britain. This is no use to us at a point in time when the global forces of capitalism in the form of wars and occupation, privatisation and neo-liberal control have stripped working class people everywhere of historic welfare and employment gains.

What is needed for a new movement to defend workers at home is principled opposition to racism and imperialism at home and abroad. A united fight against austerity can only be won by communities in the spirit of international resistance to neo liberalism. We thank Ken Loach for his long contribution to working class interests through cinema and television from Cathy Come Home to The Wind that Shakes the Barley. It is sad that The Spirit of ’45 does not come out fighting for the future more strongly.

Ann Elliot