The Spirit of ’45 Can’t Be Snuffed Out

Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45 chronicles how Labour ended many of the UK’s worst barbarities through socializing key industries and creating public goods like the National Health Service. That project is now on the back foot — but won’t ever be fully defeated.

Still of Labour leader and prime minister Clement Attlee surrounded by supporters in Ken Loach's The Spirit of '45. (Dogwoof / Film Desk)

When I first watched Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or–winning drama I, Daniel Blake in 2017, it was one of the rare moviegoing experiences I have had where you could audibly feel the entire audience’s empathy come out for the central character. The weighted sighs, the squirming in the seats, the grabbing of tissues, the shaking of heads were all constant and only increased as the film went on. Ken Loach has a tendency to bring that out of his audiences.

It’s not cynical, and it’s not artificially manufactured, either. Loach says what he means, and he says it loudly and clearly.

Art should communicate its politics through its formal visual language first. This approach goes against recent trends of artists rejecting any subtext to deliver cheap political pandering. But Loach, like Sergei Eisenstein, Bimal Roy, or Jean-Luc Godard, is the rare artist whose work doesn’t feel hackneyed when he gets out his megaphone. It’s because what he stands for is unmistakable, both in his words and his images.

The Spirit of ’45 is likewise forthright. It goes through the years starting from mid–World War II in 1935, explaining the trajectory of England’s social progress through the Labour Party’s reforms like nationalization of utilities, creation of public housing, and development of the National Health Service (NHS), then walks the viewer through the bit-by-bit collapse of those same reforms from the year of Margaret Thatcher’s decisive election victory onward. The documentary includes old footage of all kinds of laborers, working-class, and poor people, as well as political speeches. Interspersed is commentary from writers and analysts like John Reese and Raphie de Santos as well as people who lived through World War II and the 1945 election like Labour minister Tony Benn.

Still from The Spirit of ’45. (Dogwoof)

In classic Loach style, the words of these men and women are precise and concise, relaying the impact of capitalist depredations and socialist reform in simple terms. This becomes key in discussing the vast difference between the Labour Party of the past, and the mealy mouthed and unprincipled politicians rampant in every political party (including Labour’s leadership) today.

In the documentary, George Lansbury, Labour Party leader from 1932 to 1935, gives a speech to a large crowd of working-class Brits and tells them, “You don’t make profit and wealth by pushing business papers around.” Labour leaders who led the fight for publicly owned services in England speak in refreshingly direct terms and relay the benefits of policies to working people in understandable and relatable language.

The manifesto they wrote is defiantly direct, including phrases like, “The Labour Party is a socialist party and proud of it,” and “The great interwar slumps were not acts of God or of blind forces. They were the sure and certain result of the concentration of too much economic power in the hands of too few men.” These are contrasted with the words of conservatives like Winston Churchill and Thatcher, who both spoke in vague, theoretical platitudes and meaningless buzzwords.

The reforms were won rapidly: nationalization of health care in 1946, transportation and mines in 1947, electricity in 1948, water and gas in 1949, the docks in 1965. Like in I, Daniel Blake, the National Health Service, perhaps the single most positively influential British policy of the twentieth century, is a major focus of The Spirit of ‘45. It’s the central beam of the film’s success story of Labour’s postwar political sweep, because all sense of livability in a civilized society comes down to the maintenance of health and the right to life.

A man named Sam Watts recalls his childhood shortly after the war where his family lived in squalor, in beds infested with fleas, gnats, bedbugs, and cockroaches. He recalled “getting in bed and sleeping amongst them,” then “waking up in the morning to go to school with bites and dirty legs.” Scenes of miners digging on the slopes of a large pile of coal as thick black smoke swirls around them periodically like a tornado are particularly harrowing. Eileen Thompson, a former nurse, recalls that after World War I, she saw limbless soldiers on roads and in alleys; Britons shared a widespread national belief that they should never have to see such misery among their fellow citizens again.

One of the most compelling arguments the film makes is at the beginning, in the trenches of the war, where soldiers discussed how the propaganda of war asks young men to join a collective project to fight fascism. As they came back from the victory against Nazi Germany, many pondered why the collective power marshaled to wage war could not be mustered in times of peace. The rallying cry became, “If we can produce so much for war, much can be done for peace” — a missile against the arguments that we can’t afford social services but can afford infinitely expanding war budgets.

Still from The Spirit of ’45. (Dogwoof)

The Spirit of ’45 showcases how labor movements can create decisive political victories and how a global conservative movement can slowly destroy those progressive reforms beyond repair over a long-term project. The documentary paints today’s version of Labour government reform as not about the people but rather “just state bureaucrats having replaced corporate bureaucrats.” Loach paints a slow destruction over time in the final hour of the film: one hundred eighty-four working mines fall to just fifteen after privatization and a changing economic climate that made importing coal cheaper; railroads see an upswing of crashes, broken rails, and deaths after being handed over to private corporations (some of which later had to actually be brought back under government ownership because they had gone bust in the free market).

Loach’s hopeful message at the end of the film may seem rather ominous and even disheartening considering the movie came out ten years ago, before the global embarrassment of Brexit, the shamelessly dishonest public flaying of Jeremy Corbyn, and Keir Starmer’s pledging fealty to the inhumane disenfranchising of the working poor led by Tory politicians. Today, Labour looks all but dead.

But throughout his long career as a filmmaker, Loach has never admitted defeat. Reese says in the film, “All the way through human history, in one guise or another, this thought,” that working-class organizing can actually transform society, “is constantly being reiterated, suppressed, goes underground, and explodes again in a different form.” This is the essence of “the spirit of ’45.” In the United Kingdom and much of the world, it may appear snuffed out now. But it will surely come again.