The Spirit of ’45 and working-class history

By Jason Parry

A confused and bumbling Winston Churchill being booed during an outdoor election meeting in 1945 is one of the defining scenes from Spirit of ’45, a new Ken Loach documentary which celebrates Labour’s landslide election victory. In using archive footage and interviews from those who lived through one of the most significant elections in British political history, Loach uncovers the changes and impact of Labour’s first majority government. Interviews with former miners and NHS workers remind us of the importance of this historic government led by Clement Attlee, and how much British society has changed since.

The film has received some criticism. Historians and commentators alike have questioned Loach’s portrayal of the Labour government as idealistic and a vindication of socialism. Certainly, there are few criticisms of Attlee’s reforms in nationalisation, housing and the NHS. Moreover, Loach tends to depict these reforms as part of a struggle against capitalism and, ultimately, Conservatism. The biggest problem with the film is an unexpected jump from 1951 to 1979 and the election of Margaret Thatcher. Suddenly, all the good work done by Labour is dismantled whilst showing those now over-used images of stockbrokers making bizarre hand gestures to each other across a trading floor to illustrate capitalism. Whilst Attlee’s Labour understood the electorate in 1945, at the next election in 1951 the party were out of government and remained that way until 1964. Spirit of ’45 makes no mention of this, and instead focuses on how Thatcherism destroyed the ideas and hopes of the working-classes. In fact, whilst watching the film at the cinema, when Thatcher first appeared on screen the audience audibly heckled. This was much more extreme than the booing which Churchill received at the aforementioned election meeting in 1945 and illustrates the good versus evil mentality of the entire film.

Rather than imbalance, I was more interested in the way in which the film is representative of how working-class and Labour history has often been presented by historians, the public and indeed Labour itself. The rise of Labour has frequently been portrayed as a story of triumph and good versus evil. Early political historians such as Francis Williams depicted Labour’s development as an almost inevitable march to government, and 1945 as the grand finale of this struggle. The Labour Party utilises its history in a similar way, as this video which was shown at the party’s 2009 annual conference called ‘Against All Odds’ shows:

To this day, Labour ‘heroes’ such as Keir Hardie, George Lansbury and Will Crooks retain an almost mythical status. Societies which promote the study of working-class history and walks and talks surrounding topics such as the strikes and figures of the East End of London remain popular. Spirit of ’45 fits in to this image of working-class history. Not that there is anything wrong with this. Historians of the party are well aware of the fact that Labour’s development was by no means inevitable, and the election of 1951 makes this point itself.

Interviews with NHS workers, one of which recalls when Aneurin Bevan came to hand over the (metaphorical) keys to their hospital they ate jam scones for tea, a rare treat, are fascinating. As too, are the stories from former miners, who openly admit weeping at Labour’s victory. These anecdotes, after all, illustrate what working-class history is all about – changes in normal working people’s lives. Despite the imbalances, therefore, Spirit of ’45 needs to be seen in the way in which it was intended, as a celebration of working-class history, and the struggles made by people in helping making British society fairer.

For screenings of The Spirit of ’45 see:

Jason Parry


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