The Spirit of ’45: thoughts on Ken Loach’s film
He carried three letters with him – in his wallet – through his life. The first told of the birth of his daughter. The second praised his contribution as a construction worker to the Festival of Britain. The third informed him that he had been given a council house in the New Town of Stevenage.
There – in a nutshell – is the spirit of ’45.
It was about love. Or, if that sounds too saccharin, it was about the care one felt for others – for your family first of all but, by extension, for those close to you and those like you: friends, neighbours and community. Some might attach the label ‘class’ to this but most felt it less ideologically.
It was about pride – a respect for one’s status and role, a belief in its dignity: in fact, an assertion of that dignity.
And, thirdly, it was about realising that dignity in the life you – and those close to you and like you – led. A decent home symbolised what you had been denied and what you had the right to expect. That expectation, of course, was grounded in the betrayal of promises made after the first world war, in the experience shared by so many of unemployment and poverty in that bleak interwar period. And it was mobilised by experience of the power of the state and the power of the people in the second world war – a victory won for freedom and democracy by massive collective effort.
The spirit of ’45 was about aspiration, values and means.
The aspiration was simple: you wanted – you deserved – a better life. A job, a home and help when times were bad.
The values were rooted in a sense of community – not an abstract idea of how people should live or be but a powerful, practical sense that your lives were joined and responsibilities were shared. Dignity and decency for you and for others.
Which brings us to the means. The means were collective – a lesson learned from no political manifesto but from life itself: from your experience as a worker, as a soldier, from the cruelties of an unfettered free market and from the power of the collective – the union, the council, the state – to achieve, to serve and to provide.
The lesson of recent history was that collectivism could and should serve the individual. In that sense, the detail – nationalisation, a national health service, social security – was almost secondary except, of course, that it was always the detail – the grinding, imperfect work of execution, systems and structures – that transformed and dignified individual lives.
And this, I feel is what Ken Loach’s recent film, The Spirit of ’45, doesn’t quite convey. I wanted to love the film – and parts of it did move me beyond words – but I left it feeling dissatisfied. It seemed, in the end, less a call to action, less a manifesto for present times, than a reminiscence – about past lives and experiences, not our own.
The choice to shoot even contemporary footage in black and white is a simple, distancing, illustration of this. The representatives of the generation of ’45 spoke powerfully and movingly of their lives before and after Labour’s titanic reforms but it couldn’t help but seem elegiac.
The film didn’t quite connect. I and its self-selected audience who knew and identified with its story – in other words, those already invested in its message – left feeling affirmed, angered and mobilised. But later generations? I’m not so sure.
That missing connection to me lies in its failure to adequately convey those key elements of the spirit of ’45 – those aspirations, values and means – and their universal and contemporary relevance.
We have been divided. Our aspirations have been crassly commercialised. Our values have been shorn of humanity. Our sense of the means to advancement has been privatised. But at the same time we all, I think, sense something ugly in an individualism and a free market running wild. We all feel something has been lost.
And what has been lost are those simple values of dignity, decency and community and a belief – both principled and pragmatic – that our individual interests are best served by collective means. This is not because we are worse people than the generation of ’45 but because our circumstances and influences are different.
We will relearn those values and will, I hope, rediscover a sense of the power and virtue of the collective. As the film correctly asserts, the NHS is perhaps the one institution where a clear line does run from ’45 to the present. Elsewhere – in employment and its rights, in support for the less well-off, in a belief in community and its servants, the local and national state – we must educate and fight once more. Sadly, I’m not quite sure Ken Loach’s film helps us in this.