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"We need to come together and demand better": Lessons from Community Kino's screening of Spirit of '45

In the lead-up to an election, in the midst of the deep crisis going on in Britain, both Ken Loach's post-war documentary and a community screening of it last year have stuck with me.

Spirit of 45 2013 002 atlee amidst celebration 1000x750

Clement Attlee and supporters celebrate Labour's landslide 1945 general election victory.

Spirit of '45/Dogwoof

I’m writing about a film that has been out for years and an event that happened in Sheffield months ago. But both Ken Loach's Spirit of '45 and Community Kino's screening of it last May have really stuck with me, especially as we approach a general election.

Amidst the deep crisis going on in Britain – caused in part and made worse by extended Tory rule – it sometimes seems impossible to imagine a future for us. With Labour trimming it’s once radically hopeful agenda, this documentary is a slap in the face to the pessimistic.

Its message, alongside Community Kino’s M.O, was really inspiring to me. It empowered me to start demanding a better future. In a conversation with many strangers after the film, I felt like I was genuinely involved in the democratic process, far beyond voting. I left believing in a Britain that could be great.

Loach's film uses interviews, archive footage and voiceover to capture the radical changes that happened under the Labour government of Clement Atlee, which laid the foundations for modern Britain.

In post-WW2 Britain there was of course the widespread devastation of the war, alongside general unemployment and bleak living standards for many, notably below several European countries. There were still slums in many places, including Sheffield, and a high mortality rate, with people dying often of common illnesses and in childbirth due to a lack of universal, free healthcare. The war exacerbated pre-existing inequality, with the interwar period failing to close the gaps in a top-heavy class system.

Loach shows us how, when the 1945 election came around, even Winston Churchill, a hero at the peak of his powers, couldn't bag the Tories a sweeping win. The film’s contributors, aided by images depicting such gross inequality, point out that the British people were simply tired of the same and wanted better. Labour in turn met that with promises of that achievable future.

I couldn’t help but shed a tear in pride and awe of an unrecognisable country bearing the same name. For a NHS built from scratch and the nationalising of public services like trains, leading to the greatest rise in living standards in the history of Great Britain. Universal rights and protections for all workers, including precarious industrial workers, like dockworkers and miners.

Of course it was not a paradise, and many of the people in power who were extorting the general public under a privatised system remained in similar positions of power. So inequality remained and so did private healthcare. But the party did ensure that even those at the lowest rung of society still had dramatically improved living standards.

This project was not without opposition. Even doctors were reluctant to be part of it, so it required some concessions to capital and greed. Cronyism remained after reform and nationalisation, with some of the same aristocrats serving on the board of workers and unions.

In sum Spirit of '45 is an inspiring documentary highlighting the fact that in the depths of crisis, radical change is possible.

What can we learn from it?

While the situation is different now, it seems this country is on the brink of collapse every day, with a new scandal or issue which can be traced back to the neoliberal agenda of feeding profits into shareholders and not people. Crumbling schools, a crippled NHS, public transport which cannot be trusted, permacrisis all around us – enough is enough.

As a country, we need to come together and demand better. What that looks like to me is quite simple. A country with public infrastructure that works, where people don’t go hungry due to unaffordable rent and inflation.

The Tories tore up the economic rule book during the height of the pandemic, spending billions on furlough and other measures to prevent the collapse of our economy and our society. It shouldn’t be that difficult to believe that Britain, with the sixth largest economy and wealth in the world, can provide good living standards across the board, regardless of the marketplace and vested financial interests.

But apart from that we can learn to come together despite our backgrounds. We must be open to hearing new perspectives and finding a way forward. At the end of the day most of us just want to live a good life, and politics and parliament should simply be the place where that is delivered.

It’s not enough to vote Labour to get the Tories out. For we must dream big and demand more. Spaces like those created by Community Kino are great models of how democracy can – and should – play out in the most unexpected places.

by Tadhg Kwasi (he/him)

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