Loach’s lesson from history on birth of the Welfare State

Ken Loach
Ken Loach
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Propaganda or a warning from history?

Whichever political direction one takes it is impossible not to be moved by the sheer heart of The Spirit of ’45, Ken Loach’s documentary looking back at the post-war socialist wave that swept over Britain.

The film, which combines vintage newsreel with modern interviews is, depending on one’s red or blue affiliations, either an exercise in Michael Moore-style manipulation or a prescient plea for change using the events of seven decades as a cinematic sledgehammer.

Sheffield Showroom previews The Spirit of ’45 on March 14 at 4pm, a day before its official release.

On March 17 the film will be screened by satellite in a “simulcast” to multiple venues across the country, followed by a question-and-answer session with 76-year-old Loach.

The Labour landslide of July 1945 and the election of Clement Atlee ushered in a time of momentous peacetime change.

At the core of Loach’s film is the figure of Aneurin Bevan, the Health Minister who oversaw the creation of the National Health Service.

Loach also focuses on the wide-ranging nationalisation of industry in the immediate post-war period, then flashes forward to the 1980s and the Thatcher years, contrasting privatisation and the miners’ strike with what had occurred almost 40 years before.

By presenting parallels between the Britain of 1948 and today Loach’s intention is to set strident alarm bells ringing.

“The achievements of the ’45 Labour government have largely been written out of our history,” he says.

“From near economic collapse we took leading industries into public ownership and established the Welfare State.

“Generosity, mutual support and co-operation were the watchwords of the age.

“It is time to remember the determination of those who were intent on building a better world.”

The most powerful and important film of the year, The Spirit of ’45 is nevertheless far from a lesson in objectivity. The “cast list” is peppered with trade unionists, miners, and parliamentarians like Tony Benn.

But there are also those who lived through deprivation, sickness and the us-and-them class war of the haves and the have-nots. It is their collective voice that gives the film its power and its relevance.

However, Loach is not averse to moments of cinematic mischief.

As news footage of an outraged miner during the 1984 strike is played out – the man demands to know who sanctions attacks on pickets by police – the scene shifts to a smiling Margaret Thatcher. It is unsubtle but it hits the target with a thud.

In times of adversity we Brits often refer to “the Dunkirk spirit”. Ken Loach goes beyond that and evolves the term, looking ahead to a period of shared community spirit where a blue collar man was as valued as his white collar contemporary.

More than that, it highlights a national mood that was determined not to hand back a weary Britain to what was perceived to be the old order. A class war had been won. Seventy years later, claims Loach, another is being fought.

Cinemas taking part in the March 17 simulcast and Q&A include National Media Museum, Bradford; Showroom, Sheffield; and City Screen Picturehouse, York.