I was a child of the Welfare State.
Born in the early years after the end of World War II, I was aware that the dominant mood was relief that it was over, sadness at those lost and most importantly a forward looking attitude to improve things and not simply to get back to what life had been like before. The traces of the conflict were all around me in once blitzed Birmingham – in the barren, levelled ‘wastelands’ where streets had once stood, in the austerity, and the monotonous and monochrome drabness of couture and cuisine. To my boyish mind, “the war” was a shared community experience, a shadow which few, I now recall, talked about; but also, the stuff of puerile fantasies fostered by comic books, Airfix models, and patriotic movies that were literally and figuratively black and white.
Life was not all roses in those immediate post-war years, but better by far than what went before. Rationing was still in place when I was born in Birmingham in 1949, not ending until 1954. Young men still had to do their national service (the last call up was in 1960, the year I started Secondary school). We lived with our aunt in a cold-water, back-alley walk-up on the border of Balsall Heath (just inside Moseley, a ‘better’ suburb). Aunty Mary was my mother’s mother’s sister. When her sister died and daddy Paddy ran off with another women, Mary brought the six children over to Birmingham from Enniscorthy, County Wexford one by one. She had come to Birmingham from Ireland before the war, after her husband had run off (these things happened in Catholic Ireland). And she lived in that same old house right through the Blitz when German bombers regularly targeted The Second City’s engineering, motor and arms factories, and not a few public buildings including the Piccadilly and Waldorf cinemas on nearby Stratford Road.
I was born in her house. She had a friend who had once given birth, so that friend was the midwife. My brothers followed over the next two years. By then, National Health Service had kicked in, so they were born in hospital. Childbirth, forever dangerous, was now rendered less life threatening. There we all lived, three kids, our folks, three uncles, two aunts, a dog and a cat. Three bedrooms, girls in one, boys in another, and our family in the third. Outside loo and coal shed, no bathroom or hot water (we kids bathed in the kitchen sink and grown- ups went down to The Baths), Cold and damp, and close to the shops. And there we lived until, in 1956 when a council house in Yardley Wood became our first family home. Cold and colder running water that froze in winter, but it was at least inside the house; bathroom with hot water boiled in a big gas boiler; and an outside flush lavatory that was nevertheless immediately adjacent to the backdoor and not down the garden. A big garden too, for winter and spring vegetables, and summer camp-outs.
There we grew, with free medical treatment for all our ailments, and free optical and dental care. I still have crooked teeth – no fancy orthodontics on the NHS – but I have all my teeth still. And my eyesight. We were educated, for free. This came in during the war with the Butler Act. So, thanks to the Welfare State, we were housed and healthy enough to get to primary school and beyond. Once there, we had free books, free pens and paper, and compulsory sport, and doctors and nurses would turn up on a regular basis to check our vitals. And thus, we were able to reach the glorious ‘sixties ready to rock ‘n roll.
Which brings me by a circuitous route to British director Ken Loach’s 2013 documentary, The Spirit of ’45, a celebration of the radical changes that took place under the Labour government of Clement Attlee which came to power in 1945.
What a year that was! No sooner had the war ended, than the British electorate voted out its esteemed and beloved war leader, Winston Churchill, and bought Labour’s promise of a democratic socialism. Drawing on archive footage, and presented in black and white with contemporary interviews with dockers and miners, doctors and nurses, politicians and economists, Loach describes the nationalisation of the public services, and their subsequent privatisation three decades later. His interviewees provide poignant anecdotes about the poverty of the 1930s, dangerous and exploitative working conditions, poor housing, and abysmal health care, and the renewed sense of purpose and optimism after the end of the war and Labour’s landslide victory. He recounts the subsequent expansion of the welfare state, with its free to all medical service, and the nationalization of significant parts of the British economy, most notably, electricity, the railways, and the mines.
The Attlee government was elected due to a general belief that nothing would or could be as it had been before. Britain had pulled together to win the war; now, it would transform the peace. This was The ‘Spirit’ of ’45.
But whilst ‘spirit’ can imply ‘esprit’ and elation, it can also mean ‘ghost’ insofar as Loach rages against the death of all that hope, optimism, and vision in the decades that followed.. It is a call to arms for a return to the public unity of those heady post-war years and against the policies of subsequent governments, and most particularly those of Margaret Thatcher, that have progressively demolished the Britain that Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan strove to build. And it is a reminder that the NHS is worth fighting for at a time when it is being progressively dismantled. With stills of modern soup kitchens and the Occupy movement camped outside St Paul’s, Loach clearly believes that Occupy inherits that spirit of ’45.
Viewing The Spirit of ’45 was exhilarating. It was full of Wow! moments. The footage of the poverty of the depression years, the slum dwellings, urchin children playing on the streets or on the slag heaps, the unemployment queues, the scavenging for coal, the Jarrow March. Diseases now preventable or eradicated, then mortal. Five in a bed, and two of them dead. Malnutrition and rickets. Bread and dripping sandwiches? You needed beef for dripping. Fat chance. It was bread and jam, thank you (and grateful for it, one was tempted to respond – there were indeed some Monty Python moments there, particularly the one-down-manship sketch “when I was a lad, we were so poor…”
Relying so heavily on memories and reminiscences, the film is nostalgic, sentimental, and simplistic even, with little in-depth analysis. A tick-a-box of the many innovations that greeted the arrival of the baby boomers. Presented in such a clear and uncluttered fashion, it was quite stirring. That is Ken Loach for you. What you see is what you get: a one-sided history lesson.
The film leaps from the Attlee government straight into the darkest days of the Thatcher government, with no discussion of the political, economic and social changes and challenges in between. The road from Clement to Maggie was an eventful and for many, a traumatic one. The Counter Revolution took decades to establish itself. The great experiment of 1945 contained the seeds of its own destruction.
Loach’s focus on the years of nationalization and privatization makes narrative and dramatic sense.
But the years in between were dramatic also. Read Dominic Sandbrook’s great quartet. The titles say it all: Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles; White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties; State of Emergency; The Way We Were: Britain 1970–1974; and Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979. These were best of times, these were the worst of times, as the Great Man might have said. And the worst was to come, when Britain apparently went down the gurgler, and Thatcher had to break it to fix it. And like Dr Frank’s monster, it did not quite come back together right.
The Spirit of ’45 received favourable reviews (one follows), most writers qualifying their praise with Loach’s unapologetic partisanship – he is Ken Loach, after all, and you either dig him or you don’t. My favourite film is his 1995 Spanish Civil War drama, Land and Freedom. And you most certainly don’t get a balanced view of that conflict from this. As with The Spirit of ’45, you just sit back and go for a revolutionary ride.
See also othet memories in In That Howling Infinite:
Dave Calhoun, Time Out, 11th Feb 2013
Ken Loach rarely makes documentaries, and when he does, they’re usually about an urgent topical issue, such as the 1980s miners’ strike (‘Which Side Are You On?’) or the 1990s Liverpool Dockers’ strike (‘The Flickering Flame’). On the surface, ‘The Spirit of ’45’ takes a longer view than those films. This rousing and saddening film reminds us of the air of progress and reconstruction that took hold in British politics immediately after World War II. It takes us right back to the founding of the welfare state and, with it, the nationalization of the health service, transport, energy, housing and other areas of public life, as initiated by Clement Attlee’s 1945-1951 Labour government. The faces we see at the beginning of the film of young Britons celebrating in the fountains at Trafalgar Square in May 1945 symbolize the hope of a nation: that things can only get better after six years of war.
But Loach, the director of ‘Kes’ and ‘Looking for Eric’, is equally concerned with the spirit of modern Britain. For him, the socialism of our past – of Attlee and his comrades Nye Bevan, Herbert Morrison and others – could teach the present a thing or two. And so the second part of ‘The Spirit of ’45’ ponders an altogether different mood than that in the 1940s: Thatcherism and the more recent failure of organised labour to live up to its founding principles. If ‘The Spirit of ’45’ might provoke David Cameron to raise his eyes skywards, it might also have Ed Miliband cowering behind an unwritten manifesto. Loach’s quiet, unforced position is that the left is equally guilty of abandoning the promise and passion of the post-war years.
Yet, as political essays go, this is a tender, soft and humane film. It’s a compelling mix of interviews, old and new, with archive footage, much of it from old newsreels and public information films. There’s no voice-over, just faces and voices – the voices of ageing nurses, doctors, miners, union officials and others, alongside a handful of economists and historians. Some of Loach’s arresting interviewees, like Sam Watts from Liverpool and the former Welsh miner Ray Davies, recall what poverty looked like in the 1930s, reminding us why the welfare state was necessary in the first place. Others, like a trio of nurses from Manchester and the Welsh GP Dr Julian Tudor Hart, remember the excitement and the work of the early NHS. In fact, the NHS emerges as one of the film’s chief concerns: it’s both the great survivor of the welfare state and the institution of that age currently facing the biggest threat from political decisions.
Ninety-odd minutes is not enough for this subject. There are inevitable omissions (no education, for example), and Loach makes a slightly jarring leap from a chronology of nationalization that speeds through the 1950s and ’60s to the 1979 election of Thatcher. But always apparent is his clear thesis and the infectious commitment and fervour of his interviewees. The film works all at once as a lament, a celebration and a wake-up call to modern politicians and voters.