The Spirit of ’45 is a celebration, and an elegy, for the years that followed the Second World War, when demobbed troops returned to Britain believing “anything is possible,” and the country worked with the unity of wartime to create a fair, stable and happy peace. Clement Attlee’s Labour Party were voted into government promising public ownership and the common good, and the welfare state was created. Director Ken Loach, now 76, has melded unseen footage from the era, taken from the BFI archive, to create a deeply resonant picture of Britain, and to argue for a form of political and social reform not often heard in today’s Houses of Parliament.
GFW: What was the spirit of 1945?
Ken Loach: In the few years after the war there was a mood among people that is important to remember. We talked about how we could work together. The consciousness of the last 40 years is about the worship of the individual and individual freedoms. The Thatcherite ideology is that everyone should pursue their own interests and somehow society will move forward, but the spirit after the war was the opposite of that; it was about people working together for the common good. There was a feeling we’d won the war together, and therefore we could solve the problems of peace together. That led to common ownership of utilities; of gas and electric, of transport, and of infrastructure industries like coal and steel.
What are your memories of the Second World War and the years that followed?
I was nine when the war ended. I remember being bombed out in the war, and I remember the street parties when the war ended. I don’t remember the political changes because we weren’t a political household. The Daily Express came through the door. But I do remember benefiting hugely from the changes; not having to pay for the doctor for example. There was a hierarchy of treatment for basic health care at that point, and I can remembering that going and it making an extraordinary difference to my family and the people we knew. It’s difficult to put your finger on it, but there was a sense of public service. People were proud to be providing something together, and for the last forty years that’s been denigrated and seen as a burden or bureaucratic weight.
Do you think the movement to common ownership in 1945 was primarily ideological?
No, and we don’t make that claim in the film. People voted for Labour in 1945 not because they were suddenly afflicted by an ideological conversion to Marxism. It was a pragmatic response to clearing up the mess that had gone before. They didn’t want to go back to a time of mass unemployment of the 1930s, with class-warriors like Winston Churchill running the country. After the war the country was in desperate need of houses, healthcare, reliable utilities and a transport system, and it was a vote to see that happen.
Do you think, if a similar spirit were found in 2013, it would lead to genuine change?
What galvanised people in 1945 was the war, which we had to fight as a single entity. Private companies couldn’t fight the Nazis, so we relied on the state. There needs to be a similarly galvanising event, and the question is; is this present round of cuts, this attack on working people, enough? In Greece it plainly has had an effect, because the people have voted in a Government that’s of the left. Whether we can generate that here I don’t know. But I think it’s our only hope.
The Sprit of ’45 has been described as a polemic or work of propaganda. Are you comfortable with that description?
I would dispute that. A lot of the critics of the film clearly have a different politics to mine, and history is always contemporary. What you take of history reflects your view. I’ve found a lot of people who have taken umbrage with the film also want to pursue free market economics and have no interest in common ownership, but what they don’t explain is how the market will ever provide full employment, or job security, or a home?
What are your thoughts on the current Labour party?
Since 1997 New Labour has pursued a privatisation and deregulation program. Their politics are orientated around the free market. It’s been a continuum from 1979 onwards, and the National Health Service is the last great achievement we have. It has something left of the spirit of the post-war years, but it’s being destroyed so fast it will not exist very soon unless we change.
Do you think Ed Miliband has what it takes to win the next election, and would you support that?
He might have enough to win the next election, but my vocabulary is not large enough to describe the horror of the current Labour leadership. I think people will vote for Miliband because they can’t stand the Tories or the Liberals, but Miliband and his whole party will not change the structure of society in the way a lot of people in the Labour party would like him to. He won’t undo any of the privatisation or anti-trade union laws. They will just stagger on from one issue to another. What we desperately need is a new party on the left that has a vision for how society should be organised, and they could do worse than start with the Labour manifesto of ’45.
'The Spirit of 45' is released in UK cinemas on 15 March.
The film also gets a UK-wide satellite screening and Q&A with Ken, Owen Jones and Jeremy Hardy on 17 March. Details HERE.