The Spirit Of '45

The Spirit Of '45


Reviewed by: Val Kermode

1945 was the year when the war against fascism had been won and for many it was time to begin a new struggle for a better, more equal society. Young people coming back from the war, women, many for the first time, joined their trades unions and joined those with memories of the First World War, determined never to return to the “them and us” times when a small, rich elite ruled over the masses living and working in poverty.

This film is a timely reminder of how that utopia was built by ordinary men and women working together and, sadly, how much of it has now been destroyed.

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Using a mix of archive film and contemporary interviews, Loach shows us how this all came about and why it was so necessary.

Most moving are the words of those who grew up in the years before the war, remembering the poor housing conditions, sleeping five to a bed shared with fleas, queuing for casual work at the docks, digging for coal where safety counted for nothing. It was a world where the doctor had to be paid to step into the house, where folk remedies had do instead of medicine, where a family could lose their mother “for want of a pint of blood”.

Among those who shared the vision of a better society was Tony Benn, who was forming his plans as he returned from war on a troopship. He provides much of the film's narration. He argued that if you could have full employment in wartime you should be able to have it in peacetime, building the houses and providing the goods that people needed. This was not the time to return to dole queues and “umbrella pits”, forever opening and closing with owners and workers in dispute. The poor state of industry after the war and the desperate need to boost output gave strong backing to the argument for nationalisation.

The general election of '45 was crucial. Party manifestos are explained and campaigning is shown in archive clips. Churchill the great orator falters when faced with a crowd shouting “We want Clement” (Attlee). The Conservatives were so shaken that they printed thousands of copies of a book called The Road To Serfdom which showed how socialism could lead to extremes. Churchill begged his audience not to go along this road.

But the movement for change proved to be the strongest. This time, with a Labour government, there was to be no going back. Miners came up from their shifts amazed to hear that at last a new age had begun.

One by one, the industries were nationalised, and we are shown some of the resulting benefits, improved safety in the mines, the cutting back of wasteful duplication of rail links between cities, the end of the casual labour system in the docks etc. Each section of industry is introduced with its own heading and the date when it was nationalised, building a powerful sense of momentum. Though we are reminded that not everything changed. Some officials who, in the words of one worker, “should have been taken out to sea in a leaky boat” somehow held onto their positions.

There are some figures who emerge as true visionaries, men such as Herbert Morrison who would accept nothing but the best standards of design and building for his massive programme of social housing. And of course Aneurin Bevan who fought to create that jewel in the crown, the National Health Service.

Loach lets those who lived through this speak for themselves. He has assembled a compelling group of speakers, including doctors, economists, ex-union leaders. There is little attempt at balance. This is a left-wing rallying cry and a very powerful one. The film could have ended with the setting up of the NHS and the new utopia created. The spirit of '45 was so optimistic and, knowing what we know now, so poignant that perhaps this reminder of what was gained would have been enough to stand alone.

But in the second half of the film we are reminded how it was lost. The election of Margaret Thatcher, the total assault on Keynesianism, the new ideology of uncontrolled capitalism. The words of workers describing the breaking of the unions are intercut with clips of the Prime Minister and her jubilant supporters as the message is driven home.

Dot Gibson of the National Pensioners Convention makes an eloquent plea to the older generation to switch off their televisions, unplug their ears and get out there, telling the younger generations to value and protect what socialists built.

Recent surveys show that for young people the welfare state and in particular, the NHS, are such an accepted part of life that it doesn't even occur to them that they have to defend it, so we do all need this wake up call before it's too late.

On the other hand, the spirit of '45 was not as inclusive as many would expect today. The propaganda films of the time refer to “women's work”, politicians refer to those not fully committed as “pansies” and there's hardly a black face to be seen. As for the environment, that stretched a few yards from the houses of the workers and no one seemed to think beyond that.

So let's not forget those who were young in '45 and their spirit of togetherness , but let's not condemn those who are young now and, largely thanks to the internet, are able to look beyond national boundaries and include the rest of the world in their dreams.

Reviewed on: 14 Mar 2013
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A documentary about the spirit of unity that developed in the UK during the Second World War and contributed to the formation of the Welfare State.
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Read more The Spirit Of '45 reviews:

Sophie Monks Kaufman *****

Director: Ken Loach

Writer: Ken Loach

Year: 2013

Runtime: 94 minutes

Country: UK

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