When the sweet, feel-good The Angel’s Share was released in 2012, critics all asked – where has Britain’s foremost firebrand and social realist gone, at a time when we most need him? Well, he’s returned. Well and truly.
Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45 is a wonderful, unremitting archival documentary that steadfastly refuses to sit on the fence. What are we doing?, it asks. What next? Bold, political and polemical, it dares to make an explicit case for change, reminding us of a time in the not-too-distant past when a set of ideals helped build a welfare state which many of us now take for granted as it is insidiously dismantled while we look the other way, distracted by one-eyed dancing mascots and an old woman in the rain.
The Spirit of ’45 grabs our attention. It raids the riches of the British archives and reconstructs a narrative, which – if selective – is nonetheless compelling: The post-war election, the rise of the labour party, Churchill’s decline and Attlee’s exciting rise to power, the nationalisation of utilities and major industry, the beginnings of a truly socialist Labour party manifesto. It goes on. Figures clouded in public memory are re-animated, the most moving being Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan, the health minister who championed the working classes in the post-war years. Cut with interviews with retired doctors, economists, Tony Benn (a category of his own), miners, dockers, steel workers – all of whom witnessed the seemingly tectonic social changes of the ‘40s– Loach mines the archives of a British social conscience now obscured by neoliberal rhetoric.
It is, of course, a re-dreaming of post-war British public space, but in its nostalgia the film prompts us to discover what shared future we’ve lost. As an old steel-worker describes the council housing he was given after the war, and quotes from the Labour party manifesto appear onscreen, declaring that public space for culture and education should be integrated into the new estates, Loach prompts us to ask; if this was possible in the ruins of the great war, what fallacies have led us into this age of austerity? What ideology dressed up as pragmatism have we believed (or been too inert protest against) that has led us to see police battering students over education, deep cuts to welfare, and public spaces and institutions being treated like businesses, when any cretin can see that the logic of business and capital is a broken, vicious ill to society.
Some critics will call the film propagandist (for example), which it undoubtedly is. But it couldn’t be anything other, for as Mark Fisher writes in Capitalist Realism, “it is impossible to conceive or fascism of Stalinism without propaganda – but capitalism can proceed perfectly well, in some ways better, without anyone making a case for it”. The Spirit of ’45 – a socialist, collectivist spirit – can only be presented now in these terms, because capitalism is the all-pervasive norm. Despite an astronomic crash in 2008, and as countries in the EU fall, one by one, our policymakers and politicians blindly lead us further into the mire. Loach’s film dares to expose this as pure ideology, not simply the sorry necessity of the status quo, and for this the film should be celebrated, and beamed to every home in the country.