This elegy to the gains for ordinary people made in the UK after 1945 – now largely clawed back – fails to inspire due to its lack of analysis of what went wrong.
Partial Recall. Film review – Tom Jennings
Loach's return to documentary has attracted wide coverage – with cinema and DVD releases and Film4 television screening on 25th June – reflecting media sector acknowledgement of thirst among audiences for correctives to the neoliberal triumphalism now wearing exceedingly thin. So, riding waves of Olympics and other jingoisms, the veteran director panders to resurgent nationalism with an old-leftie twist, celebrating Labour's landslide 1945 victory after World War Two and its social-democratic programme of universal welfare and state control of the economy. The structure and aesthetics of the film are also unashamedly backward-looking, based on extensive black-and-white archive footage and contemporary interviews – with survivors of pre-war misery and witnesses to postwar reconstruction through to talking-head 'experts' – adopting the same monochrome palette. The shift to colour in closing clips of Stop the War, Occupy, UK Uncut and Save the NHS banners and demonstrations finally reinforces the message that present-day ragtag resistance requires unification through an updated 'spirit of '45'.
The first half-hour gives timely reminders of working-class poverty in 1920s and 30s Britain – unemployment, appalling working conditions, disgusting accommodation and unaffordable medical care – the rich maintaining power through their imperial 'free market' after the slaughter of the 1914-18 war and with the labour movement's fitful growth thereafter. Nevertheless, the film's second act recounts experiences of collective strength during WW2 in military and civilian spheres feeding beliefs that the masses could also 'win the peace' and never return to the prior status quo. Thus a bemused Winston Churchill is heckled at 1945 election hustings, Clement Attlee proclaims 'socialism', and subsequent nationalisations of housing, health provision and industry receive rapturous welcomes. We then jump-cut to Thatcher's 1980s and ongoing privatisations, attacks on organised labour and the decimation of welfare heralding a vicious circle to the bad old days of our starting point – unless, allegedly, the corpse of socialism can be resuscitated.
As an extremely blunt instrument for rousing the rabble from the slumber of 'there is no alternative', The Spirit of '45 may serve some valid purpose for those with little knowledge of history or experience of activism. But although its broad-brush approach inevitably entails oversimplification, some of the glaring omissions  are so clumsily or egregiously concealed as to suggest bad faith as well as bad politics – risking contributing to prevailing apathy and cynicism rather than renewed grassroots opposition. Thus the most serious self-inflicted failings and defeats of, and fatal compromises and betrayals perpetrated by, the Labour Party, trade unions and state socialism in general – not to mention their regular exasperated repudiation by disillusioned working-class people – are conveniently ignored or blithely glossed over .
1. see, for notable examples: 'Left Unity ... No Thanks', reposted at http://ianbone.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/; and Anna Chen, 'Ethnically Cleansing History', at http://madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06.
2. including by prominent specimens of exactly the types of elitist, self-important bureaucrats and manipulators substantially responsible. And however well-meaning we may charitably deem (some of) them to be, and whatever useful activities they might on occasion have been party to, such political racketeers and their supporters also continue to conscientiously stitch up and wreck coalitions of resistance, people's assemblies, and other potentially significant public manifestations – all in the interests of their wretched self-serving vanguardist delusions, and just as they do when manoeuvering into positions of influence anywhere.
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 74, No. 6, July 2013.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see: