What use to us now is the 'spirit of 1945'? And how might the conjuring up of such a spirit contribute to the mapping out of alternatives representing the spirit of our own times? In a year of multiple anniversary commemorations of Thompson's landmark Making of the English Working Class, the importance of radical counter-histories need hardly be restated. (1) That the lamentable Andrew Marr epitomises the contribution of public-service broadcasting to the understanding of our recent national past, and Downton Abbey its re-creation in dramatic form, suggests that the need for less glibly mythologised and conformist accounts is as great as ever.
Meanwhile recent paeans to the legacy of Thatcher (while again demanding vigorous counter-narrative) have frequently included allusions to the Attlee governments as the one other instance within living memory of a radically reforming administration, albeit one impelled by entirely
different values and aspirations. From Peter Oborne on the right to Owen Jones on the left, commentators seem agreed that these two leaders alone headed 'transformative governments' in post-war Britain. (Dutifully, Ed Miliband has also thrown in the example of 1997; but none but the staunchest Labour loyalist could swallow that.) With Labour seemingly having lost the ability to set its own political agendas, it is not surprising that the one occasion on which it indisputably did so should retain for many an exemplary status.
For all of these reasons, there can be few on the left who cannot have been favourably disposed in principle to the idea of Ken Loach's documentary The Spirit of 1945. A consummate film-maker, Loach has dug out some marvellously evocative contemporary footage for the film, which he interweaves and intersperses with commentary from his own interviewees. The great majority have been asked about their own experiences of 1945, and of the inter-war social conditions whose rectification provided the Attlee governments with their central raison d'etre, and in thus providing vivid personal witness they counteract preoccupations with the views of legislators and opinion-formers - very much in a Thompsonian tradition of history from below. At the same time, the importance of programme and political vision is underlined by Loach's interpolation of extracts from Labour's 1945 election manifesto, Let us Face the Future. The overall impression is of a world we have lost, in which values of solidarity and social justice seemed, if only for a moment, to be in the ascendancy.
It would be missing the point to scrutinise the film as one might an academic work of history. On the other hand, we are clearly not expected merely to wallow in it as an exercise in nostalgia. Conceived as a political intervention, The Spirit of 1945 has been put forward by Loach as a catalyst for a reconfiguration of the British left that will bypass both the Labour Party on the one hand and the main established formations to Labour's left on the other. The object is 'a new political party of the Left founded to bring together those who wish to defend the welfare state and present an economic alternative to austerity'. (2) At the time of writing the idea has attracted some eight thousand on-line signatories of support, and a number of local organising meetings have already been held.
Although the case for some such reconfiguration of the left is compelling, it is not so immediately obvious that Loach's spirit of 1945 is the spirit in which to approach it. One might pass over the irony of invoking a document enjoining us to face the future some seventy-five years after its main stipulations were enacted. But one may wonder, for example, what coal - which features prominently in the film and undoubtedly provides indictment of the past - represents in terms of possible futures.
Regressive modernisation continues to provide a fertile seam for our opponents. The left, however, needs to be careful how it summons up its own equivalents of Thatcher's Victorian values. …