Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Re-visiting “the Spirit of ’45”

In A.Graham on July 11, 2013 at 12:57 pm

“The Spirit of ’45”, directed by Ken Loach.


In many ways this moving film is a departure from Ken Loach’s normal work. It is for a start wholly documentary, shot in a period monochrome, with snatches of old documentary film interspersed with contemporary interviews. A selection of those who lived through the years portrayed in the film recall memories of how it was for them.

It begins with a depiction of the grim 1930s, when poverty and unemployment hung like a grey pall over Britain: the years of rotting slum housing, the means test for those out of work, and the hunger marches.

Then we move on to the end of the war in Europe, the joy of families re-united as troops return home – and the determination that the country would not slide back into the conditions that prevailed in the hungry ‘thirties. There are shots of George Lansbury (leader of the Labour Party in the mid-1930s) speaking at an open-air meeting, and affirming that “the key is who owns industry and who controls that industry”. And Attlee declaring at a post-war meeting that Labour “puts first things first…” There would no longer be an option “based on rent, interest and profit in the interests of the few.”


In 1945, Labour won a landslide victory. The Tory seats tumbled, and supporters celebrated the dawn of a new day. But Britain was in desperate straits economically. Our monetary reserves were drained, we were deeply in debt, and the country’s infrastructure had been badly battered by the war.

Public ownership and control was seen as the key, both to recovery and to create a new, more egalitarian, society from the ashes of war.

A symbolic cornerstone was the creation of a new national health service, to replace the old patchwork system, in which money and the ability to pay was paramount. A Parliamentary Bill to establish the NHS was passed in 1945 (despite opposition from the BMA). Aneurin Bevan, as Minister for Health and Housing, was responsible for steering through the Bill – winning over the leaders of the medical profession by (in his own words) “stuffing their mouths with gold”.

All hospitals came under national ownership. The new system ensured that no commercial relationship existed between doctor and patient, and a pro-active approach to health was ushered in. As Doctor Tudor Hart was quoted as saying, “we’re all responsible for everybody else”.


In quick succession came the nationalisation of those industries that represented the “commanding heights of the economy”. The British Transport Commission was set up to co-ordinate a national railway system with road haulage and the network of canals – to ensure that the component parts of the system worked together, not in opposition to each other.

Then came the eagerly awaited nationalisation of the mines. The new NCB flag was hoisted over the nation’s pitheads – and that year there was a mass turnout at the Durham Miners’ Gala.

Although such factors as safety down the mines, together with modernisation, improved drastically, there was some criticism of the form that this new public ownership took. Tony Benn is quoted as saying that there’d been “a top down system of nationalisation” in the mines. The old tiers of management remained, often with the same faces.

The National Docks Labour Scheme followed , together with the nationalisation of energy, plus the water supply. Electricity and gas generation, of course, form “natural monopolies”, in which the notion of competing companies vying for business should play no part.

Housing in our new Britain was, of course, a priority – not only to replace homes destroyed during the war but also the rotting slums left over from before the war. The emphasis was on public housing – as Nye Bevan declared, “the need is to build houses for poor people.” For him, and indeed the Government as a whole, the key issue was health and welfare. This also included the building of integrated communities and new towns (such as Stevenage in 1947).

The mood of the film changes abruptly as we switch to the election of Margaret Thatcher as PM. Suddenly, as one interviewee declares, “it became all about the individual and getting rich.” The free market now ruled, and mass privatisation followed. During the ensuing years there was a wholesale dismantling of nearly everything that Labour had created between 1945 and 1951. One interviewee declared that the selling off of council houses was “one of the biggest disasters” of the Thatcher years.
Even the National Health Service has suffered from a campaign of attrition, starting with the privatisation of cleaning, laundry and catering in 1983. All that’s followed since then has been aimed at “bringing the NHS back into the market place,” said Dr. Tudor Hart. If we don’t defend the NHS, then we’re finished.
A last few words must go to Dr. Tudor Hart: “Talk of ‘caring capitalism’ is like talking about the Arabian phoenix. People have heard about it, but no-one’s ever seen it.”

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