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Eugenics was Behind Some of the Policy Disasters of the 20th Century

Samir Jeraj considers the role British elites gave to eugenics as a deeply flawed method of providing the nation with a healthy stock of soldiers.

A 1930s Eugenics Society poster from the Wellcome Library Eugenics Society Archive
Eugenics was Behind Some of the Policy Disasters of the 20th Century

Samir Jeraj considers the role British elites gave to eugenics as a deeply flawed method of providing the nation with a healthy stock of soldiers.

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Alongside the revelation that it was British institutions such as UCL which pioneered the thinking that informed the Nazis’ Final Solution, the other surprise for me when watching Angela Saini and Adam Pearson’s BBC documentary, Eugenics: Science’s Greatest Scandal, earlier this year was just how pervasive eugenics and the bunk science behind it was in British social policy.

At the start of the 20th Century, British policy-makers were obsessed with the fighting stock of the country. The Boer Wars (during which British forces established some of the first concentration camps) revealed the poor health of working-class men in the UK – known as the ‘Condition of England’ problem. This led to a raft of social reforms to improve housing and healthcare to provide the nation with a healthy stock of soldiers for the battlefield.

As Saini has brilliantly shown in her book, Superior, the key idea behind eugenics – that society could be “improved” through selective breeding – had pervaded British elites. It is no small surprise that policies were designed to control people deemed to be “inferior”.

Key among these was the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913, which created institutions in which “mental defectives” could be separated from the general population, in part in order to stop them having children. Lord Robert Cecil called out the origins of the Act in a speech in Parliament.

“I confess I feel very nervous about applying any remedy on the ground of eugenics in the present condition of our knowledge of that science,” he said. “I fully admit myself that it is a most important matter, which ought to occupy our attention very closely, but to say broadly that a mentally defective parent is not fit to produce children is going very far indeed.”

Still, in the end, the Act passed with only three parliamentarians voting against it. In place for more than 40 years, it enabled mothers to be institutionalised purely for being unwed. It was replaced in 1959 by the Mental Health Act, which started the move away from institutionalisation and towards community care. The widespread abuse within these institutions is well-documented and still the subject of thousands of legal cases. 

Eugenics also found a place in education policy. Following the passing of the Mental Deficiency Act in 1913, the London County Council hired a child psychologist and eugenicist called Cyril Burt to implement the new legislation and, among other things, devise a test to establish whether children were “feeble-minded”. Those who failed this test were separated and sent to a “colony”.

Eventually, Burt would come to the conclusion that a test administered at age 11 could and should be used to segregate children into different types of schools. The 11 plus system, though still practiced in Northern Ireland and parts of the UK, has always faced criticism for entrenching inequality and relegating millions of children to a second-class education. 

Nor has eugenics-influenced policy been abandoned in the 21st Century. In 2012, the UK Department for International Development was found to have funded “forced sterilisation” programmes in India to the tune of £166 milllion – despite evidence that the programmes were resulting in deaths and miscarriages. Sterilisation was never widely practiced in the UK, but was very much part of the eugenics agenda – with the pioneers of birth control such as Marie Stopes promoting its effectiveness in improving the stock of British men. In Sweden and parts of the US, forced sterilisation was enforced by law against people in mental institutions until the 1970s.   

Eugenics by definition means control and coercion of human beings, which is perhaps why one of its fiercest opponents in the UK – and one of the three MPs to vote against the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act – was the libertarian progressive MP Josiah Wedgewood. Unfortunately, it still seems to hold a special place among some who claim to champion liberty.

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