Wednesday 21 March 2018

The dream that died

Paul Whitington

Film Review: The spirit of '45 (Club, IFI, 97 minutes) ***

In the summer of 1945, with a commendable lack of sentiment, an exhausted and war-weary British electorate turfed out Winston Churchill and installed a radical Labour government led by the colourless but eminently capable Clement Attlee.

This was not the Labour Party of Tony Blair or Ed Miliband: the ministers who took their seats in Attlee's cabinet were socialists, and over the next five years they embarked on a hugely ambitious reform of the moribund British state.

With flair, ruthlessness and aplomb, politicians like Aneurin Bevan and Hugh Dalton pushed through such apparent logistical impossibilities as a national health service, nationalised power grids and railways, state-run mines, schools and universal social welfare.

In doing so they transformed British society overnight, and launched a deadly assault on their country's odious and outmoded class system.

For old lefties like Ken Loach, this halcyon period is a magical, golden age, and in this sometimes intelligent documentary he examines how Attlee's government achieved so much so quickly, and why their dreams of an egalitarian Britain failed to materialise.

In the film's best passages, Loach recalls the heady optimism of the late 1940s through interviews with nurses, miners, union leaders and politicians who lived through that turbulent time.

Sam Watts, an 88-year-old Liverpudlian communist, remembers growing up in rat-infested tenements that slept eight to a room, until Attlee's government began systematic slum clearance and rehousing.

A 90-year-old nurse called Eileen Thompson speaks with glowing fondness of Bevan, and a former Welsh miner called Ray Davies appears before camera sporting a Spanish Civil War beret as he describes the odious indifference of the mine owners before the Labour government sorted them out.

All of which is very moving, and the achievements of the Attlee government are impressive in the extreme. But Loach and his contemporaries view the late 1940s through hopelessly rose-tinted spectacles, and the director doesn't have the courage to address the factors that undid the Attlee dream.

Power-drunk unions, administrative inefficiencies and the relentless venality of human nature are not mentioned.

Instead, Loach points a hysterical finger of blame at Margaret Thatcher, in a clumsy and laughably simplistic broadside that undermines the veracity of everything that's gone before.

In addition, he only talks to fellow travellers and sympathetic witnesses. In Loach's film, there are no dissenting voices – how very Stalinist of him.

Irish Independent

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