The 1940s

To mark its 120th anniversary this year, each month the British Academy will look back on a different decade in its history by delving into its extensive archive of historical sources. This retrospective will lead up to the publication of a booklet on the first 120 years of the Academy this summer.

This decade did not start well for the British Academy. In September 1940 bomb blasts twice caused ‘injury’ to the Academy’s premises in Burlington Gardens, rendering the Council Room ‘unfit for use’. Worse, the Academy had been informed that the annual grant it received from government was to be discontinued for the duration of the war. Nevertheless the Academy responded to a Home Office request to consider the cases of academics who had been interned as ‘enemy aliens’ and to identify those with valuable qualifications: on the recommendation of the Academy’s tribunal, most would be released from internment – including Nikolaus Pevsner, future author of the famous Buildings of England series, who would become a Fellow of the British Academy in 1965.

In 1941 the Treasury partially restored the Academy’s funding, stipulating that a particular focus of the annual £1,000 grant should be ‘the preservation of learned societies whose continued existence would otherwise be endangered by the war’. Even so, the activities of the Academy were inevitably much disrupted, and it was often limited to issuing expressions of concern and sympathy for the plight of academic individuals and institutions caught up in the conflict across the world.

If the Academy itself was constrained in what it could do at this time, individual Fellows stepped up to play roles of great national significance – demonstrating the value of the disciplines promoted by the Academy. In 1942 the economist William Beveridge published his report on Social Insurance and Allied Services; seeking to overcome the five evil ‘Giants’ of want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness, it laid the foundations for the postwar development of the Welfare State. And the economist J.M. Keynes was one of the main architects of the new international monetary system devised at the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference, which sought to avoid the mistakes of the Great Depression and to boost postwar recovery.

The economists William Beveridge and John Maynard Keynes
The economists William Beveridge and John Maynard Keynes, both Fellows of the British Academy, demonstrated the contribution that academics can make to public policy at the very highest level.

We may also note in passing that many men and women who were already, or would become, humanities academics helped bring about victory through their work in military intelligence, particularly at the codebreaking centre at Bletchley Park: over 60 would go on to be elected as Fellows of the British Academy for their academic excellence.

Peace brought a modest increase in government funding, and opened up channels of scholarly communication once more. In 1947 Harold Idris Bell, the President of the British Academy, undertook a visit to Germany in order to assess the state of scholarship there in the aftermath of the war. But the overall impression was that the Academy was now stagnating: as Bell admitted in his 1948 Presidential Address, ‘it has even been unkindly suggested that the main official function of Fellows is to write obituary notices of one another’. In what was later exaggeratingly described as a ‘palace revolution’, in 1949 the 86-year-old Secretary, Frederic Kenyon, stepped aside after 19 years in office. His replacement, Mortimer Wheeler, arrived with a clear agenda to breathe new life into the Academy.

The British Academy’s Public Policy work

Professor Christina Boswell, the British Academy’s Vice-President for Public Policy, explains how the Academy’s contribution to contemporary policy issues is more important than ever.

As the country begins to think about how we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, one can’t help but draw parallels with the situation of Beveridge and Keynes in their attempts to envisage a safer and more prosperous future beyond the ravages of war.

As then, individual Fellows have played their roles in steering the country through troubled times, and though our war has been with microscopic enemies rather than sovereign nations, it has required no less understanding of economics, politics, culture and diplomacy. Individual Fellows have provided potentially life-saving advice and insight on the effectiveness of lockdown measures such as mask wearing and social distancing, in modelling the geographical and demographic trends affecting morbidity and mortality, in communicating scientific information and risk to the public, and in responding to disinformation and hesitancy on vaccines.

But unlike the 1940s, today’s British Academy can play a much more active role in marshalling the knowledge and insights of our Fellows to shape public policy debates and guide policymaking. The multidisciplinary insights in the Academy’s COVID Decade reports have provided the UK with both an understanding of the long-term impact of COVID-19 on society, and a roadmap for recovery after the pandemic. The reports starkly reveal how, despite the great achievements since the Beveridge Report, we continue to face its five evil ‘Giants’, all of which can be exacerbated in times of crisis.

The British Academy’s ‘COVID Decade’ report on the long-term societal impacts of Covid-19.
The British Academy’s ‘COVID Decade’ reports analyse the long-term societal impacts of Covid-19.

The Academy’s policy work now seeks to build on these landmark reports by digging deeper into the key challenges and opportunities of the post-pandemic recovery. We will be interrogating the mechanics of policymaking itself, to understand how we might make our democratic system more resilient to crises we face in the future, whatever they may be.

Our programmes on social infrastructure will help us to understand better the vital role of services and structures that support the quality of life in communities, as well as the social and cultural ‘glue’ that ties them together in a post-welfare society.

Lockdowns have accelerated the rollout of digital technologies, but this has only highlighted inequalities in digital access and use. The Academy asks ‘what does a good digital society look like?’, and seeks insights from across the SHAPE disciplines to help answer it.

Finally, the British Academy is championing the role of SHAPE in responding to the climate emergency, examining how we can foster shared understandings and collective action to bring about the changes that are urgently needed, and to explore what kinds of places and communities we will live in next.

This page was created to mark 12 Decades of the British Academy.

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