Rebuilding Britain after the War

The Year of Our Lord 1943

Alan Jacobs

OUP, hb, £20.00


Shortly after the end of World War II Douglas Jay made a comment that summed up the way many people then thought. “The man in Whitehall,” he said,“really does know best.” The war had been won by technological superiority and careful planning, now it was time to apply those resources to refashioning society.

Alan Jacobs describes views of five Christian intellectuals – WH Auden, TS Eliot, CS Lewis, Jacques Maritain and Simone Weil – who worried about the modern technocratic emphasis on efficiency and sought to use the resources of Christianity to create a renewed humanism.

Other people feature as well in what is a wide-ranging and very readable survey of how many Christians were thinking during the years of World War II and especially in the year 1943 when it became apparent that Hitler would be defeated.

Jacobs begins in his native America with an account of the views on education of the president of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins, and Mortimer Adler of the same university with their concern to give students a broad, humane education and their rejection of pragmatism and positivism and ends with Jaques Ellul’s great work The Technological Society.

Although the five main subjects did not coordinate their thinking, Jacobs makes a good case for arguing that they were all taking a similar line. What he is less successful at doing is arguing that they grasped the real challenge that confronted the world after the war was over.

William Beveridge makes only a fleeting appearance but as someone who grew up in post-war Britain I am glad that his idea of a welfare state was more influential than TS Eliot’s vision of an elite preserving culture with the poor not educated beyond their station.

Jacobs laments that the writers whose views he outlines came a century too late and that by the time they wrote the power of technology was too great. He implies that this means Christianity had little chance to influence the world as it was but this is to ignore the influence of a number of Christians who did make a huge contribution to post-war reconstruction.

Chief among them was someone Jacobs never mentions, William Temple, the man who coined the phrase ‘welfare state’ and whose book Christianity and the Social Order published in 1942 was a best seller.

RA Butler was another Christian who made an important contribution to refashioning British society after the war. His education act has been hailed by the historian SJD Green as a success for the Church of England. The act made it possible for students from working class backgrounds to go on to university and study the humanities of which Jacobs so much approves. The great mistake was not to take up Butler’s proposals for technical schools and instead consign those who failed the 11-Plus to unloved secondary moderns.

But it is possible to disagree with the views of the people Jacobs describes and still enjoy this stimulating and well-written book. The fact that Jacobs is readable does not mean he is not scholarly. He uses a very wide range of sources and many people as well as myself will be grateful to him for drawing attention to an essay on Simone Weil by Connor Cruise O’Brien that appeared in The New York Review of Books in 1977.

Jacobs is particularly good at interpreting and commenting upon the work of WH Auden. He is adept at detecting the Christian themes in Auden’s wartime poetry that some critics have missed.

A crucial point Jacobs makes that should not be overlooked is what his five main subjects understood by humanism. Maritain was the only one for whom humanism was what Jacobs terms ‘straightforwardly compelling’. The other four had reservations about the Renaissance and Renaissance humanism.

Their humanism consisted of a conviction that the way to come to a true belief in human dignity was through regaining a knowledge of God and that this would be best accomplished ‘not only, or even primarily, through theology as such, but also and more effectively through philosophy, literature and the arts’. With that point of view it is difficult to disagree.

I belong to a generation that was able to take an interest in philosophy, literature and the arts thanks to the reforms introduced after World War II with the Butler education act and the creation of the welfare state in Britain.


Paul Richardson