Ken Loach’s spirit and direction has lost none of its revolutionary spark
The veteran director’s latest work is a paean to the 1945 UK Labour government, and rumours that this film will be his last have been greatly exaggerated
Ken Loach has made an excellent documentary about the changes wrought in the aftermath of the 1945 British general election. As everyone used to know, that poll saw Winston Churchill – the man who had just led the nation through its “finest hour” – soundly defeated, and Clement Atlee, a humble, but determined Putney boy, installed as the Labour Party’s second (and still most admired) prime minister.
It’s an extraordinary story. Undaunted by debt and exhaustion, the new government managed, in just five years, to transform the nation into something a little like a socialist democracy. The National Health Service was established. Public utilities were nationalised. A sort of uneasy consensus then set in.
The Tories returned to power in the 1950s, but made no serious efforts to reverse Labour’s most significant innovations. It looked as if some version of the 1945 accommodation would last forever. But Margaret Thatcher had other ideas.
“This idea had been bouncing around my head for some time,” Loach says. “I was asked if I would do an archive documentary. I think it’s apposite now. We are now in the midst of a great depression and a recession – as we were at the end of the 1930s. There is a large amount of anger at the cuts and at the destruction of the NHS. You wonder, as the remnants of a civilised society are destroyed, whether people might consider an alternative.”
Emergence in the 1960s
You won’t need to be told where Loach stands on the 1945 government. Since his emergence in the 1960s with the angry TV play Cathy Come Home , Loach has been an inexhaustible evangelist for left-wing causes. Films such as Kes , The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Raining Stones burn with righteous fury at injustice. Sure enough, The Spirit of ’45 yields no ground to the capitalists and the blacklegs. The only serious criticisms levelled at the post-war government concern insufficiently vigorous application of socialist theory.
Largely taken up with the testimony of ordinary working people, the film allows in no dissenting voices. Forget thesis, antithesis and synthesis. This is thesis, thesis and more thesis.
“We thought about that,” he says in his soft midlands burr. “But that would be silly. It’s not a current-affairs programme. It’s people describing the collective wish of those who came through the war and their mood for change. It’s not a general history of the period. It’s about how that need to make a better world expressed itself. I think that’s a large enough point to make in itself.”
Loach could be seen as a product of that post-war revolution. Born in 1936, the son of an electrician, he attended grammar school in Nuneaton in Warwickshire and eventually made his way to Oxford.
At university, he appeared in revues before drifting towards the BBC and, heavily influenced by the Italian neo-realists, devising his own school of raw, rugged naturalism.
“I remember the war better than the immediate post-war years because they were so dramatic,” he says. “I remember the raid on Coventry. But it wasn’t a political house. So, I don’t remember discussions about what happened afterwards. But we all benefited from the health service and from free education. I remember that with gratitude.”
So, he wasn’t raised in a “political house”. How did Loach turn out this way?
“Oh, it was to do with the writers I met, the people I worked with. It was the time of the Wilson government. The anti-Stalinist left got more active and present. It was quite sexy to be on the left in those days. It was just in the air. There was a ferment of ideas and you’d have to be obtuse not to notice.”
A quiet man who can, nonetheless, argue you into quivering submission, Loach broke on to the international stage with Kes in 1969. That film, the story of a working-class boy and his kestrel, is often cited as one of the very best British films ever made. Sadly, the nation’s industry was just slipping into a period of decline. Ken spent most of the succeeding decade working in television.
In 1979, Thatcher was elected prime minister and began the business of decommissioning the post-war consensus. The manufacturing industries were trashed. Legislation was brought in to curb union power. The utilities were privatised. Loach found it harder to get his increasingly polemical pieces aired.
The Spirit of ’45 doesn’t quite explain how the Thatcher revolution happened. You could argue the public didn’t know what they were voting for in 1979. By 1983, when the Tories were re-elected in a massive landslide, the masses should have been in no doubt what the grocer’s daughter was up to.
“Labour didn’t progress industrial democracy at all. They didn’t invest and nationalised industries fell into disrepair, and politically they didn’t make progress.”
Again, the problem with Labour administrations is, according to Loach, they weren’t socialist enough.
“Then there was this right-wing Tory propaganda that the unions were too powerful,” he continues. “People were encouraged to think badly of the unions. Thatcher came to power on the back of the right- wing press. The Tories tore the country apart. They provoked strikes. They brought in laws against the unions. There was a whole mood swing.”
Since there is no devil’s advocate in Loach’s film, that role must fall to the reluctant interviewer. It was not just “right-wing Tories” who felt, in the 1970s, the unions had got too powerful. As solidly leftwing a figure as Barbara Castle – Labour’s “red queen” – tried (and failed) to reform those bodies. TV documentaries on the late 1970s rather overdo the stuff about rubbish piling up on Leicester Square and bodies rotting at the cemetery gates, but, surely, the unions had got somewhat out of hand by the time of Thatcher’s election?
Loach is having none of it.
“If businesses tries to maximise their profits that is seen as their duty to shareholders,” he says calmly, but with unyielding determination. “But if workers try to keep their wages up to inflation that is seen as irresponsible. There is a double-standard there, surely.”
It is possible to criticise both business and the unions. Right? “But it’s written into company law that you have to maximise profits,” he says. “The problem with the unions was they just dealt with wages and conditions. They didn’t advance political demands: workers’ control, public ownership, a planned economy. But inflation was 25 per cent. If you put forward a wage claim of 20 per cent you are still losing money. And that is supposed to be irresponsible. Is it?”
At any rate, by happy circumstance, the fall of Thatcher in 1990 coincided with a surge in Ken Loach’s fortunes. Hidden Agenda , his film on the Northern Irish troubles, won the Jury Prize at Cannes and he has worked consistently ever since. Pictures such as Riff-Raff and Raining Stones proved that politically driven social-realism could have mainstream appeal.
In 2006, Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley , a drama of the Irish War of Independence, took the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
The Spirit of ’45 works as a neat summation of the beliefs that have driven Loach throughout his career. It is, in so many ways, a poignant document. Over 30 years after Thatcher’s victory, nearly 20 after Tony Blair defanged the Labour Party, a return to democratic socialism seems like an increasingly remote possibility.
“I think it hasn’t been a possibility for a long time because there hasn’t been a political party that has been the voice for it,” he says. “Not even the unions stand up for that any more. The Labour Party is now a major part of the problem because they are deregulators and privatisers. Without the alternative being articulated, people can’t identify with it.”
There are grim truths here. But Loach doesn’t sound depressed. He still seems driven by an unstoppable work ethic. Word on the street has it he and Paul Laverty, his regular writer, are attempting to get another Irish project off the ground. “I don’t know yet,” he says with the hint of a teasing laugh. “We are scratching around. Maybe it will be a goer. Maybe it won’t.”
There were also whispers on the wires that his next film would be his last. Now 76, he seems admirably undamaged by the creeping decades. Say it isn’t so.
“I think that’s always true,” he laughs. “Every one is the last one.”
The Spirit of ’45 is at the Light House cinema, Dublin from Friday