Ken Loach’s recent film was broadcast simultaneously in various cinemas across the UK last Sunday. I attended the showing at the DCA. A beautiful and poignant documentary which celebrates the achievements of the post war Labour government and in particular the various social reforms which it ushered in. The National Health Service was given prominence, but all the major changes were recorded, which included the nationalisation of the railways, the coal mines, the electricity and gas companies. Though the film uses archive material from the 30s and 40s, this is not in any sense a balanced documentary.
It is rather a very partial and one-sided reconstruction of the period. The one-sided bit is not a problem, most people know where Ken Loach stands on the political issues of then and now. So it is no surprise that he offers us a very glowing and positive account of the changes ushered in by Labour in 1945. What is less acceptable is the partial account of the changes. In particular he presents the changes and the pressures for change as a result of the terrible impoverishment of the UK in the 1920s and 30s. While this is undoubtably part of the story, it is only a part of the story. What brought about the Labour landslide of 45 was as much or even more, the war. It was the changes that the UK underwent at home as much as abroad during the war years which underpinned the Labour landslide in 45. This is only alluded to in the film.
The film is also partial in that it does not present any of the opposition to the changes, nor any of the disagreements and criticisms within the Labour government and movement about how the new institutions should be run and managed. All is presented as just wonderful. The other and most glaring partiality of the film is that it is almost exclusively about England and Wales. Northern Ireland does not get a single mention, while Scotland is only mentioned once as best I can recall. This may be because the NHS features as the pride and glory of the changes and right from the start there was no UK NHS. Instead there was one for Scotland, one for Northern Ireland and one for England and Wales. Whatever the reason behind this decision, the result is a film that is only about England and Wales.
Now, giving a partial account of something is not in itself reprehensible. Where it becomes so, with this film is when there is a sudden and unexplained jump from 1951 to 1979 and Margaret Thatcher’s first election victory. We then get the by now familiar account of how the Tories went about dismantling just about everything that was left of the ’45 reforms. Privatisation of this, that and the next thing. Loach explained later that 1979 represented a new, individualist spirit in the land compared to the collectivist spirit of 45. However unlike the earlier part of the film there was no context or attempt at explaining why the country had changed so much by 1979. We were just shown a nasty, mean spirited Tory party in power and determined to undue all the achievements of the past. No hint anywhere in the film that the Labour party may have itself changed in the meantime and subsequently. It was only at the very end were we given an insight into the flaws of the 45 reforms – top down, bureaucratic, and corporatist. Much easier to just blame the Tories.
The focus on England and Wales was confirmed when the Q&A session started in the hall in London. The first question from the audience was all about changes to the school system. Changes introduced by New Labour and pretty much irrelevant in Scotland and probably Northern Ireland as well. We left at this point. Difficult to know what to make of the film. Good in part, but just why was it made? It seems that Loach is keen to promote a new left party to challenge Labour. In which case why did his film not expose the part Labour governments have played in dismantling the 45 reforms? And again to reinforce the Anglo centric view of the proceedings, it seems to have escaped Loach and his supporters that in Scotland we have another alternative altogether – leave the UK and set up an independent Scotland where the spirit of 45 is probably a bit more alive and kicking than in England.