In 1904 a Royal Commission was established to look into The Care and Control of the Feebleminded. 'Feebleminded' was, then, a new addition to the psychiatric taxonomy of mental incapacity; the Idiots Act 1886 had put a distinction between 'idiocy' and 'imbecility' in law. Idiots were the least capable members of the society, under this definition, and the newer term 'feebleminded' was to refer to that group of people who could possibly work but needed help to overcome mental shortcomings that limited their independence. The Commission took a great deal of evidence from a range of experts and made its recommendations in a Report published in 1908 . These included placing the 'mentally defective' in 'colonies' where 'the inmates spent most of their time in workshops or working on the land [...] ' (p. 76). They considered whether it would be appropriate to restrict the ability of the mentally infirm to reproduce through either a programme of sterilisation or by preventing them from marrying, though they suggest that such a move would be contrary to 'the general feeling of the people' (p. 185), except in the most severe cases, where they recommend it.
Winston Churchill had no such reservations. By the time the report came out, he had been a cabinet minister for three years, with an even more longstanding concern for the impact of the 'feebleminded' on Britain, writing to his cousin Ivor Guest in 1899 'The improvement of the British breed is my aim in life'. He had followed with interest the introduction of a Eugenics Law in Indiana in 1907, which mandated the sterilisation of inmates deemed mentally unfit, and banned them from marrying. Despite the opposition of public, parliamentary and most scientific opinion to such measures, Churchill was convinced of their rightness: 'I am drawn to this subject in spite of many Parliamentary misgivings ... Of course it is bound to come some day'. He asked the Home Office to explore the possibility of introducing such a law and tried to explore what might be the most appropriate surgical procedure. When he became Home Secretary in 1910, his enthusiasm was unabated, fired by reading he Sterilisation of Degenerates by Dr H C Sharp with its dire warnings of 'the degenerate class' threatening 'the purity of the race'. In December of that year, he wrote to the Prime Minister, Asquith, in these terms:
I am convinced that the multiplication of the feebleminded [...] unchecked by any of the old restraints of nature, and actually fostered by civilised conditions, is a very terrible danger to the race. [...] 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. I feel that the source from which the stream of madness is fed should be cut off and sealed before another year is passed.
Churchill's enthusiasm for eugenics grew, despite being moved to the Admiralty; he was Vice President of the first International Eugenics Congress held in London in July 1912. He tirelessly lobbied his colleagues advocating for sterilisation of the mentally unfit. However, his efforts to introduce such a measure to the Mental Deficiency Bill 1913 failed, the Act preferring the Commission's recommendation of confinement. Indeed, sterilisation never made its way onto the statute books in Britain (unlike in Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States).
Churchill's enthusiasm for such legislation was, strange though it seems now, progressive and liberal principles.
To his officials, he had advised that sterilisation was morally superior to segregation:
I think it is cruel to shut up numbers of people in institutions, to them at any rate little better than prisons, for their whole lives, if by a simple surgical operation they could be permitted to live freely in the world without causing much inconvenience to others.
It is not impossible to see how sterilisation might have seemed a more humane response to the 'problem' of feeblemindedness. To liberals and leftists, taking seriously the discoveries of Darwin, worried evolution might, in some circumstances, lead to degeneration, the unchecked spread of biological abnormalities which could lead to the destruction of a people (or, as they would have said then, a race). It was perhaps less clear to the Edwardians than it is to us that the application of Darwin to different types of people is scientifically illiterate, expressive of a deep-seated inhumanity, and resting on a false belief in biology as an explanation of disability.
In any case, eugenics fell dramatically out of favour among progressives in the 1940s because of its association with the Nazis and the 'Final Solution' and such views faded from mainstream debate.
But not entirely. In Edgbaston in 1974, the Conservative MP Keith Joseph made an infamous speech. He noted
a high and rising proportion of children born to mothers least fitted to bring children into the world and bring them up. They are born to mothers who were first pregnant in adolescence in social classes 4 and 5. Many of these girls are unmarried, many are deserted or divorced or soon will be. Some are of low intelligence, most of low educational attainment.
He argued that the result of these unsuitable mothers was an epidemic of 'problem children, the future unmarried mothers, delinquents, denizens of our borstals, subnormal educational establishments, prisons and hostels for drifters' and noted darkly that 'these mothers, the under-20s in many cases, single parents, from classes 4 and 5, are now producing a third of all births'. The implications that Joseph drew from this were apocalyptic: 'the balance of our population, our human stock is threatened [...] the nation moves towards degeneration'.
It is exactly the same concern expressed by Churchill sixty-four years earlier, in much the same language - and with the same solution:
proposals to extend birth control facilities to these classes of people, particularly the young unmarried mothers, evokes entirely understandable moral opposition. Is it not condoning immorality? I suppose it is. But which is the lesser evil, until we are able to remoralise whole groups and classes of people, undoing the harm done when already weak restraints on strong instincts are further weakened by permissiveness in television, in film, on bookstalls?
In other words, the population is threatened by degenerates and the only sensible solution is to prevent them from giving birth. Rightly, Keith Joseph was lambasted for his comments. His attempts to clarify and apologise only compounded his fault and the episode dealt a fatal blow to his widely-touted chances to take on the leadership of the Conservatives.
The main beneficiary of his failure was his friend and colleague Margaret Thatcher, who assumed leadership of the economic right-wing of the party and got the leadership less than four months later. Joseph became a key advisor, in part through his personal advocacy, but also through his foundation of the economically liberal Centre of Policy Studies. The influence he had would go on to help Margaret Thatcher get elected in 1979 and bring about the most decisive shift rightward in British politics since the war.
In some ways, this forestalled a different kind of rightward shift. In the unstable 1970s, various right-wing individuals spoke more and more openly about the possibility of a right-wing coup. Most of these people were delusional, but there was a eugenic aspect to their thinking. Eccentric millionaire John Aspinall - and his horrible associates Jimmy Goldsmith and Lord Lucan - liked to refer to the majority of human beings as 'the urban bio-mass'; in a review of a book about their circle, Christopher Bray notes: 'When Richard Nixon told him that a nuclear bomb could kill two million people, Aspinall expressed disappointment that the victims would be so few'. Thatcher never expressed views quite like this, but eugenics has never quite gone away.
Five years ago, the former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, Howard Flight, who had just been ennobled by David Cameron, offered the Evening Standard thoughts on one unintended consequence of a strong welfare state:
We’re going to have a system where the middle classes are discouraged from breeding because it’s jolly expensive, but for those on benefit there is every incentive. Well, that’s not very sensible.
The same old tropes are here: describing human reproduction like the breeding of cattle; the quasi-racial division of classes; the worries about the middle classes being swamped by the fuckful feckless poor. Flight was, of course, forced to apologise.
And then we have yesterday's budget. One of its well-trailed provisions was to remove any increase in tax credits and housing benefits after a family has two children. This is a view that has been championed by Iain Duncan Smith, so you already know it's a nasty idea. But what does this mean? Why do this?
It comes hard on the heels of five or more years of tabloid scare stories about large working class families. The same old eugenic images are here: the lazy poor, their unrestrained appetites, their freakishly large families compared to middle class restraint: 'Hard-pressed families across the country sit round the kitchen table working out if they can afford another child,' explained a spokesman for the lying fascists The Taxpayers' Alliance, 'and nobody on benefits should be any different.'
But this isn't eugenics, is it? Putting a cap on benefits is very different from sterilising the poor. Of course it is. It's not the same. But the effect is the same. Note something: they haven't made this retrospective. Any family claiming for more than two children already can continue to do so. The policy kicks in in April 2017. Why? Presumably because it would be unfair to cut the benefits of people who have already made the decision to have these children. But you know what? That's an admission that this is a policy designed to change people's decisions. It's a policy designed to stop the poor from having so many babies.
Churchill and Aspinall were ignored. Keith Joseph and Howard Flight were censured. Who will stand up and name this new policy for what it is? A new economic eugenics.