How eugenics poisoned the welfare state

A century ago many leading leftists subscribed to the vile pseudo-science of eugenics, writes Dennis Sewell, and the influence of that thinking can still be seen today

25 November 2009

12:00 AM

25 November 2009

12:00 AM

We live in a country where the poorest members of society are literally trapped. We pay them millions not to work, simply maintaining them at subsistence level like prisoners of the state. Tied up with bureaucratic regulations and subject to crazy marginal rates of tax, there are few chances to escape for Britain’s welfare-dependent. A million of those out of work have been jobless for a decade or more. They see their chances of getting a job in the future as so remote as to be barely worth considering. The chances of their children ever finding work are beginning to look slim too. The neighbourhoods in which they live are falling apart. The squalor is palpable; crime rampant; local schools are very often failing or ‘sink’ schools. If you think I’m exaggerating, choose any area with a high level of welfare-dependency and go and look for yourself.

So what went wrong with a welfare state that was supposed to make ‘ignorance, squalor and want’ things of the past, and guarantee greater social integration? Or have we simply misunderstood what that project was really about?

Most accounts of the origin of Britain’s welfare state begin with the Minority Report of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws, drafted by Sidney and Beatrice Webb during the first decade of the 20th century. Beneath their seemingly compassionate rhetoric, the founders of the Fabian Society were snobbish, elitist and harboured a savage contempt for the poorest of the poor. Both husband and wife were enthusiastic supporters of the eugenics movement, which held that most of the behavioural traits that led to poverty were inherited. In short, that the poor were genetically inferior to the educated middle class.

Eugenics had been the brainchild of Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton, and was developed in response to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. It was taken up as a programme of political action by Darwin’s son Leonard. The eugenicists aimed to replace natural selection with a planned and deliberate selection. They were alarmed by the fact that the poorest in society bred faster than the middle class, forecasting that this trend would lead to a spiral of degeneration in the gene pool. Their aim was to encourage the rich to have more children and the poor to have fewer. They quickly got the science establishment on their side, creating a national panic about genetic deterioration that became as widespread and salient as fears of global warming are today. In this scenario, the poorest with their ‘defective’ genes were the bogeymen, a class that threatened to contaminate future generations.


For the Fabians, eugenics was not merely some eccentric hobby or sideline, but central to their social thinking. Beatrice Webb regarded eugenics as ‘the most important question’ of all, while her husband revealed the statist and dirigiste character of the movement with his declaration that ‘no eugenicist can be a laissez faire individualist… he must interfere, interfere, interfere!’ Even for George Bernard Shaw, ‘the only fundamental and possible Socialism’ was ‘the socialisation of the selective breeding of Man’.

In the years leading up to the first world war Leonard Darwin set about lobbying the government to act. He wanted to set up flying squads of scientists, armed with powers of arrest over the poor, to tour the country weeding out the ‘unfit’. Those who were found wanting by these tribunals were to be segregated in special colonies or sterilised. One politician who supported such draconian measures in parliament was the Labour MP Will Crooks, who described the targets of the eugenics campaign as ‘like human vermin’ who ‘crawl about doing absolutely nothing, except polluting and corrupting everything they touch’. Crooks was perhaps only outdone in his vehement contempt for what we now call the ‘underclass’ by Shaw, who believed that they had ‘no business to be alive’ and speculated at a meeting of the Eugenics Society about the need to use a ‘lethal chamber’ to solve the problem.

Another Fabian eugenicist, the writer H.G. Wells, vented his frustration and indignation in a direct address to the working class. ‘We cannot go on giving you health, freedom, enlargement, limitless wealth, if all our gifts to you are to be swamped by an indiscriminate torrent of progeny,’ he complained, ‘…and we cannot make the social life and the world-peace we are determined to make, with the ill-bred, ill-trained swarms of inferior citizens that you inflict upon us.’ It was as if — as in the Brechtian joke — the Fabian left had lost confidence in the people and had determined to dissolve the people and appoint a new one.

In 1913, the eugenicists succeeded in getting the Mental Incapacity Act through parliament. As a result, some 40,000 men and women were incarcerated without trial, having been deemed to fall into various specious categories such as ‘feeble-minded’ or ‘morally defective’. This latter description was used to imprison petty criminals, unmarried mothers or those displaying homosex-ual inclinations — all, allegedly, clear signs that they possessed the sort of defective genes believed to be conducive to pauperism. Edith Huthwaite, from Yorkshire, was categorised as a moral defective after being convicted by Ripon magistrates of theft. She was held for 18 years.

Theoretically, such measures were targeted at the mentally handicapped, but diagnosis of mental incapacity was applied somewhat loosely, and the act was frequently used as an instrument of oppression against the chronically poor. That suited the eugenicists just fine. They were by no means reticent in declaring their true agenda — the containment and segregation of what they termed the ‘social residuum’.

William Beveridge, later to emerge as the midwife of the post-1945 welfare settlement, was also very active in the eugenics movement at this time. Today, Beveridge is generally portrayed as a kindly, avuncular figure, one almost dripping with compassion and benevolence. But his roots were in a particularly hardline strand of eugenics. He argued in 1909 that ‘those men who through general defects are unable to fill such a whole place in industry, are to be recognised as “unemployable”. They must become the acknowledged dependents of the State… but with complete and permanent loss of all citizen rights — including not only the franchise but civil freedom and fatherhood.’ And that, except for the loss of fatherhood, has effectively been his legacy.

Eugenics was no quickly passing fad. The Eugenics Society reached its peak, in terms of membership, during the 1930s, and the cusp of the following decade saw the zenith of its prestige. The economist John Maynard Keynes served on the society’s governing council and was its director from 1937 to 1944. Once again, this was no casual hobby. As late as 1946 Keynes was still describing eugenics as ‘the most important and significant branch of sociology’. Working alongside Keynes at this time as the editor of Eugenics Review was Richard Titmuss, soon afterwards to become an influential professor at the London School of Economics working on social policy, and who would ultimately be dubbed ‘the high priest of the welfare state’.

It was during the late 1930s that much of the detailed planning for the welfare state was carried out. And a good deal of it was undertaken at meetings of the Eugenics Society. On the evening that the House of Commons met to debate the Beveridge Report, Beveridge himself went off to address an audience of eugenicists at the Mansion House. He knew he was in for a rough ride. His sch
eme of family allowances had originally been devised within the Eugenics Society with a graduated rate, which paid out more to middle-class parents and very little to the poor. The whole point was to combat the eugenicists’ great bugbear — the differential birth rate between the classes. However, the government that day had announced a uniform rate. Beveridge was sympathetic to the complaints of his audience and hinted that a multi-rate system might well be introduced at a later date.

Given the association of so many of its founding fathers with the dismal pseudo- science of eugenics, perhaps we should not be surprised that our welfare system has ended up preferring safety nets to trampolines, or that it prefers simply to warehouse the poor rather than give people who have fallen on hard times a chance to take responsibility for their own lives. Eugenics infected its adherents with a deeply pessimistic view of the poor, branding them as irredeemably genetically second-rate, and this view has cast a long shadow over social policy assumptions. Labour figures who mock the idea of ‘compassionate Conservatism’ or make light of David Cameron’s focus on our ‘broken society’ need to take a hard look at some of their own history and intellectual heritage. When it comes to who really can claim to care about the problems of the poor, the dividing lines are not so straight as Gordon Brown thinks they are.

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Show comments
  • MikeF

    One of the delusions of our time is that ideas about the supposed genetic and hence social or racial inferiority of whole groups of people are somehow the exclusive province of the ‘right’. The left likes nothing better than to ‘categorise’ people on a group basis, especially when it can claim some sort of spurious ‘scientific’ justification for doing so. I wonder if we will get a BBC or Channel 4 documentary on this phenomenon – perhaps they might even label it the left’s ‘dirty little secret’. I somehow think not.

  • A. MacAulay

    Eugenics is irredeemably part of the “Modern” and seems now as old fashioned as a le Corbusier high rise. Or the 3rd Reich. Here, this vicious, crazy, inhuman doctrine became state policy.

  • Robert Slack

    “the poorest members of society are literally trapped”

    Are they poor because they are trapped or trapped because they are poor? Without answering the question it it will not be possible to solve the problem. If there are genetic heritable differences among the population which create an underclass then we must face up to it, even it seems unpalatable. Even if the observed differences in attitudes and attainment levels are purely the consequence of nurture we still have the problem of differential birth rates (don’t know numbers off the top but I’m fairly sure birth rates in poor and poorly educated communities are higher than in higher socio-economic groups. If we don’t deal with it it will deal with us. And it is hard to see it will not lead to serious civil unrest..street violence leading to repression and demographic balancing through death. Or perhaps a good old world war to get rid of cannon fodder. It might be better to accept we must deal with the problem. Reality rules!

  • Paul C

    People dependent on benefits usually vote Labour so it is not in the interests of the party to liberate them.

  • A. MacAulay

    Robert Slack, one of the interesting things about British society, perhaps the most significant, is that it is on the one side a rigid structure with an arcane proliferation of expressions of social merit through Orders, medals, societies, etc. all emanating from the Crown and that this hierarchy is permeable from below. A person of humble background could make it to the House of Lords, and until the shameless Blair, the consensus (practice will diverge) was that a person who worked hard could go far and merit could be recognised and service rewarded. Now, not only has the meritocracy been perverted (e.g. Baroness Ashton) but the permeability has been wilfully undermined with the destruction of the education system and the creation of a dependant dole class.

    This has nothing whatsoever to do with genetics!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    If poverty and ignorance were genetic we would still be living in caves. Please consider that the failure to understand this is at the root of the disasters of the 20thC with its millions of dead. Pseudo Malthusianism and social Darwinism are perversions. Think on this before you, go over the top, in your next, “good old war”.

  • Laban Tall

    “They must become the acknowledged dependents of the State… but with complete and permanent loss of all citizen rights — including not only the franchise but civil freedom and fatherhood.’ And that, except for the loss of fatherhood, has effectively been his legacy.”

    In which case Beveridge’s plan was a total failure, as the whole point of eugenics is to produce differential birth rates between different classes of people. I’d also dispute that the very poor have been disenfranchised or deprived of civil freedom.

    I’d go further and say that Berveridge produced the opposite effect to that intended. Only the very rich or the very poor can afford to have lots of children now.

  • John Patrick

    I recommend War against the Weak by the American journalist Edwin Black which charts the origins and development of this evil movement. Interestingly the feminist icon Margaret Sanger, founder of the family planning movement, was also a staunch supporter of eugenics. For her, both contraception and abortion were essential tools in weeding out the desirable elements of society. Black, to his discredit, defends modern feminism with its support for both these and fails to acknowledge the continuity between the eugenics version and the contemporary version of pro-‘choice’ radical feminism.

  • David Lindsay

    There is nothing new here, nor does there purport to be. What is new, although less and less so now, is the disappearance of the explicitly Christian Tory, Liberal and Labour traditions (Catholic or classically Protestant – Liberal Protestants were prominent in eugenics) that used the legacy of Keynes and Beveridge in causes radically different from that of eugenics, whatever Keynes or Beveridge himself may have intended, just as Christianity has redeemed everything from the Old Israel, Hellenism and the Roman Empire onwards.

  • TDK

    “Or perhaps a good old world war to get rid of cannon fodder.”

    It is disappointing that so many people still believe in the myth that world wars killed a disproportionate number of the poor and working class. This is total bunk. As a proportion of the relevant population groups the one with the highest casualties in the first and second world wars was the officer class. NCOs and privates were relatively lower. Now many people say that the senior officers were safe in their chteaux. However this is to neglect the fact that most senior officers were of an age that would excuse them for duty if they were of private rank. The equivalent working class age group were in Britain.

  • Robert Slack

    TDK and A MacAulay

    I thought my comment was easy to understand. Why did it so totally confuse you both?

  • Theresa

    I think in the interests of balance, you should have mentioned that Winston Churchill, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and Dean Paul Inge, GK Chesterton’s bete noire were also enthusiastic supporters of eugenics and attempts to introduce compulsory sterilisation. I think they might just possibly have been right wing.

    • Chris Hobson

      Chuchill was not a right winger he crossed the floor, he was a careerist aristocrat.

    • Dan

      I think the fundamental problem here is you don’t seem to know what Right and Left wing were then which probably means you don’t know now.

  • Peter Reeve

    When you say, “the eugenicists succeeded in getting the Mental Incapacity Act 1913 through parliament” I assume you intend The Mental Deficiency Act of 1913, of which Winston Churchill had been one of the early drafters and was its most enthusiastic proponent. (The Mental Incapacity Act was passed in 2005).

    More seriously, you quote Shaw as saying, “The only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialisation of the selective breeding of man.” That quote is actually from The Revolutionist’s Handbook and Pocket Companion, in which Shaw put the words into the mouth of his character John Tanner. The work is satirical. If you read it – and it is worth reading, being very well written, often hilarious, and is freely available online – and cannot see that it is meant ironically, then just be thankful that Churchill did not get his way with his proposal for enforced sterilization of the “feeble-minded”.

  • K Crosby

    Thanks Peter, what a shame that it took a look in this right-wing rag to find the citation….

  • Catherine Birch

    I don`t believe that people should be forced to be sterilised, but if they offered voluntary sterilisation & payed people to get it done, then surely that would save the taxpayer a fortune in child benefit, & also the NHS would not have to bear the burden of people who chronically sick because of inherited conditions. I tried for years to find a doctor who would agree to sterilise me because I wasn`t fit to breed, having a family history of heart disease & mental illness. I finally had the operation done at 24, much to my relief, but unfortunately I`d already polluted the gene pool by having a baby at 18. I consider being sterilised damage limitation.

  • Horny_goat_weed