Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45 is an emotive call to action that risks falling on deaf ears

A new film says we need the spirit of 1945 to respond to contemporary poverty, but who will listen, asks Abigail Scott Paul.

Ken Loach’s latest cinematic foray, The Spirit of ’45, is a stylish feature-length social history documentary that charts the birth and, as the film portrays it, the gradual dismantling of the cornerstones of Britain’s welfare state: the NHS, council housing, and energy and transport nationalisation (education is only mentioned in passing).

The film documents how Clement Atlee’s post-war government seized the opportunity to create a new society to prevent a return to the poverty and squalor of 1930s Britain. Using archive footage, historical interviews, TV of the time and new talking heads, it successfully describes the vision of Beveridge and Bevan and chronicles how it was translated into practical action.

It is difficult not to fall in love with this utopian vision as you hear first-hand about the tangible differences the NHS, safe employment and council housing made to people’s lives.

The film concludes with present-day photos of people queuing at Walthamstow’s soup kitchen: the same picture of Britain highlighted by the commentary and footage at the beginning of the film of 1930s Britain – a stark reminder of the depth of contemporary poverty in this country. The spirit of 1945 is needed now, in Loach’s eyes, as we deal with the consequences of privatisation and the impact of the current economic crisis on individuals and communities.

But is Loach preaching to the converted?

Will this message be heard by those who need to hear it? I am not sure. This is unashamedly one take on history. There is no counterbalance of views, as you would normally find in a news report or TV documentary and there is a risk Loach’s message will be dismissed; already one critic has described the film as ‘propaganda’.

But his message is a valuable one: we are at a crossroads in our social history; our economy is ‘battered’ as it was in 1945; and our changing demography and climate mean that a new collective response is needed. Yet the answer cannot lie solely with the state – Julia Unwin argues that we need a new social contract between the individual, state and the market.

The Spirit of ’45 and its publicity machine will mean that the issues will be brought to the attention of many more people than, say, a broadsheet column or academic lecture. But as a call to action, I think it will probably only be heard by those willing to listen. Not only do we require a new vision for Britain, but we have to find a new way of communicating that need to those who can make a difference.

The Spirit of ’45 is released on Friday 15 March.

  • Abigail is leading the communications strand of JRF’s anti-poverty programme. She is convening a group of leading communications specialists (including media, online activists, campaigners, communications agencies etc) to explore how we can best build consensus for anti-poverty measures.