This weekend, watching Ken Loach’s Spirit of ’45, amongst the documentary footage I noticed a number of things that gave a strong impression of how life has changed since the years after the Second World War. There is a shot of a woman beating out a rug, doing the very laborious work of hitting the thing hard against a wall. There are quite a lot of bicycles, be they in footage of men wheeling them alongside themselves at protests, or simply of people getting around a city. In scenes inside the home, people are reading or writing, and while I’m not about to mourn the loss of a fictitious golden age when people read books and weren’t lazy, the images all illustrated how society has been automated, and how we can now passively consume processes – be it of transport, entertainment or domestic living - that we once had to provide for ourselves. While I think this extremely significant, Ken Loach evidently didn’t, and so the Spirit of ’45 remains eminently dogmatic and one-dimensional, it’s greatest service is as a master class in how not to go about making a documentary or communicating a political message.
Propaganda is a word I’ve seen written a couple of times in reviews of the Spirit of ’45, nostalgia is the other word that seems similarly useful, and I don’t share the feelings of those left-leaning commentators who seem to feel these sins can be forgiven in what is – broadly – an important and valuable film. A film such as Spirit of ’45 cannot be judged by an ability to motivate those on the left who would agree with its basic principles anyway, its success would have been measured in whether it could make a dent in the views of those who value free-market fundamentalism and myths of Exceptionalism and the self-made man. In my mind, it wouldn’t, the film simply takes up a wandering journey through the simple idea that the world was once better and it’d be nice if it could be again.
One very obvious example of this tendency is coal, encapsulating the problem by which those on the left must reconcile affection for the salt-of-the-earth coal miner with the concern that coal is bad for the environment. At one point, Loach laments the mass closure of coal mines as crucial in the destruction of society, without touching on the fact that coal mining isn’t the most pleasant activity for those mining it, nor for anyone who wants to breathe the air it's burnt in. In the hour and a half documentary, the word “green” is shoehorned clumsily in by a single interviewee, a solitary acknowledgment of the fact that our world and our understanding of it has maybe changed a little across the last seven decades. The interviewees, moreover, give the impression that everyone in Britain is from the north of England, and white, so that whatever the increase of different ethnic groups in public life since 1945, the documentary shows a Britain that few might now feel part of, leading one to question the relevance of what Loach was trying to make. Although some aging interviewees do speak with deep emotion, and no doubt from grave personal experience, the feel of the film becomes little more than old, white people talking of how life was better. True or otherwise, Spirit of ‘45 offers very little constructive for how that ‘better’ might be regained.
There are other inconsistencies too, and even before Loach closes out with black-white footage that turns colour as happy people inexplicably start putting up bunting and throwing streamers, the film is painfully simplistic. Nye Bevan is championed for riding roughshod over the British Media Association when he nationalised healthcare, Loach disregards that the exact disregard for expert opinion and the BMA is now invoked as one of the most heinous crimes in Tory plans for the NHS; Spirit of ’45 only briefly touches on the idea that Labour’s welfare state was imposed by decree as much as consensus. One interview raises the valuable point that the idea of capitalism remains incredibly strong in the UK, despite the failure of its institutions. Another urges pensioners to turn off their televisions and reach out to young people so as to communicate the ideas that gave rise the welfare state, and footage shows one man questioning the psychology and chain of command that leads a police officer to beat a man with a stick. These are all incredibly important questions that Loach gives all but no attention, and nor does the documentary confront the peculiarity that no political party has a promise to renationalise the railways, despite the fact that the majority of the country – even without seeing Loach’s film – are strongly in favour of such a policy.
For those who value the idea of a stronger, fairer and more humane society, I’d just about advise going to watch the film. After it finishes, go home and start the harder task of how to make that vision a reality, a question Loach seems to have afforded precious little time.