20th century support for eugenics by Churchill, Beveridge, Keynes etc – what to make of it?

This week, a couple of LDV commenters mentioned the support of eugenics by Beveridge and Keynes in the 1930s and early 1940s. Such support was widely shared by members of the Fabian society and notables such as George Bernard Shaw, Marie Stopes, Harold Laski – even Winston Churchill (earlier in the 20th century).

Debate of this point was not possible on unrelated threads this week, so this article is posted to allow discussion of this interesting, and somewhat disturbing, historic phenomenon.

Jonathan Freedland has written an excellent article on this subject and concludes:

The Fabians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb and their ilk were not attracted to eugenics because they briefly forgot their leftwing principles. The harder truth is that they were drawn to eugenics for what were then good, leftwing reasons.

They believed in science and progress, and nothing was more cutting edge and modern than social Darwinism. Man now had the ability to intervene in his own evolution. Instead of natural selection and the law of the jungle, there would be planned selection. And what could be more socialist than planning, the Fabian faith that the gentlemen in Whitehall really did know best? If the state was going to plan the production of motor cars in the national interest, why should it not do the same for the production of babies? The aim was to do what was best for society, and society would clearly be better off if there were more of the strong to carry fewer of the weak.

What was missing was any value placed on individual freedom, even the most basic freedom of a human being to have a child. The middle class and privileged felt quite ready to remove that right from those they deemed unworthy of it.

Eugenics went into steep decline after 1945. Most recoiled from it once they saw where it led – to the gates of Auschwitz. The infatuation with an idea horribly close to nazism was steadily forgotten. But we need a reckoning with this shaming past. Such a reckoning would focus less on today’s advances in selective embryology, and the ability to screen out genetic diseases, than on the kind of loose talk about the “underclass” that recently enabled the prime minister to speak of “neighbours from hell” and the poor as if the two groups were synonymous.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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12 Comments

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 21st Feb '16 - 11:20am

    A thought provoking article, about a shameful aspect of early 20th century history. Both Beveridge and Churchill expressed disgusting views about the disabled and those with learning difficulties, suggesting that they should be denied the most basic human rights – prevented from having children, and forcibly detained. Marie Stopes was an appalling woman, who virtually disowned her son because he married a woman who wore glasses, which Marie Stopes considered made her unfit to be a mother. In view of their disgraceful views on this subject, I was surprised and disappointed that Tim Farron has recently expressed admiration for both Churchill and Beveridge.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 21st Feb ’16 – 11:20am………..In view of their disgraceful views on this subject, I was surprised and disappointed that Tim Farron has recently expressed admiration for both Churchill and Beveridge………….

    For heaven’s sake. So Churchill and Beveridge weren’t perfect; who is? But it is blind ignorance not to praise them for the good they did.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 21st Feb '16 - 2:27pm

    Paul Walter showing yet again why LDV is necessary keeps us coming back for more !

    Thank you , Paul and your colleagues , I was one of the two , you mention, in your reflective, and welcome, post.I am particularly pleased to see your link and quote regarding the Jonathan Freedland article I alluded to in my comments on the previous posting, and that it has allowed for this, as he is not only good on this issue , but an excellent and thoughtful writer and man who has got to the heart of the subject as he often does.

    I have for long been interested in getting to grips with this matter.For a while ,way back when, I was in the Fabian Society, and was one of the members who , amongst us , got national press coverage for our attempts to change the society rules on its statement of values.Admittedly,as someone ,always happy , in my youthful time in Labour, with the words Social Democrat, but not with the description , Socialist, the attempt was to both broaden the societys appeal and break with its past ,statist, though moderate ideology.I particularly had in mind its associations with the issues raised in this posting , here, and the wretchedness of some of the views of Shaw and the Webbs, the founders of the society! I eventually moved to my political home of the Liberal Democrats, where I belong , and where I am , in general ,both very much in accord with its philosophy, and history.But there are deviations from that for us all , though rarely .This identifies that.

    I believe it to be relevant.I admire Tim , and relate to his having political heroes.Any of us of his generation, especially would, the Thatcher era was not full of them when we grew up! A look to the past is often beneficial.But I cannot embrace Beveridge , because of this.It is inexcusable.It does go to the core of the views of many at that time.As shown in this piece, and as I have mentioned before,not only the left and centre , the right , too have responsibility here.

    I would say how and why this should be considered.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 21st Feb '16 - 6:16pm

    Richard, very good point about Churchill. The Eugenics ideas do not sit easily with any notion of freedom, and , at least in its classical and early social Liberal sense, Churchill was certainly that.

    Unfortunately, while we know Beveridge did not see his report ,and what it called for , as a Eugenic rallying cry , do we know he abandoned those ideas.His 1909 statement, calling for the loss of any rights of citizenship or reproduction, both , is horrible .

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Feb '16 - 6:39pm

    I’ve criticised eugenics on here before, but I’m still strongly in favour of high quality genetic science. We need to better ourselves in a fair way and it seems much more can be achieved with genetic science than without it. People are exploring gene editing to prevent diseases, but I would be fine for it to be done for things like memory improvement too. We need to make sure we pass our best genes on and it shouldn’t be done on the basis of prejudice or sacrificing human rights.

  • When one digs into Churchill’s time as a Liberal, there is much a modern Liberal wince.

    In 1910, as Home Secretary, Churchill wrote to Prime Minister Asquith : “The unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the Feeble-Minded and Insane classes, coupled as it is with a steady restriction among all the thrifty, energetic and superior stocks, constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate.”

    In February 1911, he spoke in the House about the need to introduce compulsory labour camps for “mental defectives.” As for “tramps and wastrels,” he said, “there ought to be proper Labour Colonies where they could be sent for considerable periods and made to realize their duty to the State”. Convicted criminals would be sent to these labour colonies if they were judged “feeble-minded” on medical grounds. It was estimated that some 20,000 convicted criminals would be included in this plan. To his Home Office advisers, with whom he was then drafting what would later become the Mental Deficiency Bill, Churchill proposed that anyone who was convicted of any second criminal offence could, on the direction of the Home Secretary, be officially declared criminally “feeble-minded,” and made to undergo a medical enquiry. If the enquiry endorsed the declaration of “feeble-mindedness,” the person could then be detained in a labour colony for as long as was considered a suitable period.

  • To be fair, Asquith ignored Churchill’s letter. He had Ireland, the House of Lords, strikes and threats from Germany to deal with……. not to mention the matter of female suffrage (he was against in 1910 – doubtful if he would support Caron’s AWS !! ).

    As a Liberal Imperialist, Asquith – like Churchill – was concerned about what was revealed about the health of the nation from failed army recruits in the Boer War. He took a very different tack to Churchill, putting the emphasis on social reform, raising wages, improving education and sanitation.

    “What is the use of talking about Empire if here, at its very centre, there is always to be found a mass of people stunted in education, a prey to intemperance, huddled and congested beyond the possibility of realizing in any true sense either social or domestic life”. (Asquith, 1901).

    Different times… different solutions.

    Churchill also showed his brand of Liberalism when he introduced forced feeding of imprisoned suffragettes.

  • It’s important to understand people in the context of the times they lived in.
    Before the 1913 Act, the “feeble minded” wound up in prisons or Poor Law institutions.
    Advances have been made since one hundred years ago of course. At that time few of these people were able to learn to read. That changed more than thirty years ago when techniques were developed that enabled some of them to aquire a better level of literacy. Of course they are still expected to work. I knew one such man who lived in my neighbourhood, Stanley (he is now dead) He worked in a laundry and could do the work of a washroom man.

  • Simon Banks 28th Feb '16 - 5:41pm

    Early Fabianism had many profoundly illiberal aspects. Planning for the good of other people, whether they liked it or not, was very much part of it.

    The Nazis took Social Darwinism to extremes and as is said here this caused a reaction. The gradual dawning realisation of the reality of Stalinism continued the reaction against a strand of Socialism that was essentially moderate totalitarianism with benevolent motives.

    Another factor was the development of genetics to the point that some of the easy assumptions of the eugenicists could be questioned.

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