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The spirit of ‘45

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As the government ploughs ahead with its welfare reforms, debates over tax, spending and welfare dominate parliamentary discourse. It is timely, then, that acclaimed film director Ken Loach has just released an incendiary piece, The Spirit of '45. A polemical defence of the post-war welfare state, the film documents the programme of nationalisation undertaken by Clement Attlee's Labour ministry between 1945 and 1950. But, as the title suggests, Loach's real aim is to capture the collective resolve to 'never again' suffer the poverty, unemployment and deprivation of the 1930s.

In a recent interview on BBC Radio 4's Start the Week, Loach was asked why he was making this film in 2013. He responded that it was apposite, given the broader context of the European debt crisis and the domestic backdrop of welfare state dismantlement. He hoped that the current 'suffering' across Europe would prompt the mass of people to announce, in a similar spirit to that of 1945, 'enough' to the 'devastation' wrought by neo-liberal economics.

Loach is not the only commentator to suggest that the debt and fiscal crisis affecting Europe may be slowly delivering the sort of 'devastation' that made 1945 a watershed moment and necessitated such thoroughgoing political, economic and social change. But if policy makers in Britain are to 'take lessons' from the immediate post-war period, as Loach has instructed them to, then they will need to provide answers to several intriguing questions about the spirit of '45 and what has become of it in this country.

Firstly, when did the spirit of '45 begin to wane? Many, like Loach, who inhabit the space of the Old Left post-New Labour, would answer 1979. The coming to power of Margaret Thatcher in that year signalled the beginning of an assault on the nationalised industries and the gradual privatisation of state monopolies. It is a point that the film makes rather indelicately, with the action suddenly and unapologetically jerking away from the cosy spirit of universalism in the 1940s to the pickets and police of the 1980s. This generational leap was too much to stomach for even The Guardian newspaper, which awarded the film a middling three stars.

It is evident that the spirit of '45 had begun to flag long before 1979. This was a point, however, that the audience at a recent preview screening of the film in Liverpool were having none of. When Thatcher appeared on screen she was booed, hissed and jeered like a pantomime villain. This opens up a more pressing question concerning the divisive legacy of Thatcherism and its political influence today.

Harriet Sergeant, of the think-tank most associated with Thatcherism, the Centre for Policy Studies, argues that it is seen as unpatriotic to attack the spirit of '45, even when a byword for unaccountable and monolithic state bureaucracy. With the recent exposure of malpractice at the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Trust, the liberty of the individual - in this case the whistleblower - has again become a political rallying cry. Once again, however, the dichotomy between the Spirit of '45 and Thatcherism can easily be overblown. The Small Man versus the Big State was an influential vein of political thinking in the post-war period, witnessed in the so-called 'Spiv Cycle' of British films from that era such as Waterloo Road and Passport to Pimlico.

In any case, it would be an unfair criticism of Loach, whose films have always concerned the anonymous individual, to cast him as a defender of state bureaucracy. This is not a 'history film' in the ilk of his 2006 drama The Wind That Shakes The Barley, his take on the Irish Civil War which instigated much heated debate and influenced political reconsideration of that conflict in Ireland. Rather, the stars of The Spirit of '45 are its interviewees. Historians are often rightly critical of the artistic licence deployed by filmmakers, but there have been few films which use oral history and rare film archive to such effective political ends. The myth of Winston Churchill, for instance, is blown apart by footage of the stuttering war leader roundly booed by a boisterous young crowd.

I introduced the preview screening in Liverpool and chaired the subsequent Q&A with Ken Loach, in which he made clear his intent to use history as a battering ram at the door of contemporary policy. He warns that a great challenge for policy makers today, unlike in 1945, is to ensure that Britain's non-white population do not become scapegoats for economic distress.

Historians and politicians alike often find fault with the use of history to drive home political points. As the coalition government reforms the welfare system and the NHS, the legacy of what might more accurately be described as 'the myth of '45' will be disputed; but the enduring power of that myth is beyond doubt.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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