28 November 2010

Eugenics returns to the Tory Party: Shades of Keith Joseph, 1974 edition

The Tories are getting really bold now. Earlier in the year we had Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt (probably the fourth least pleasant Tory member of the cabinet behind Gove, Pickles and Osborne) saying that the cap on benefit payments to family was a good idea because it would encourage the poor to be more "responsible" about having children.

I'm sure anyone born into a large family on benefits will feel suitably chastised to have been so irresponsible as to have been born into that position(!?) but we'll come back to that.

Then, this week, we had Howard (now Lord) Flight giving us his €0.02 on the same issue. Those of you with memories longer than the lifespan of the Coalition may remember that Flight was barred by Michael Howard from standing for re-election as Conservative MP for Arundel in 2005 when he gave the game away by suggesting that the Tories were planning much larger public expenditure cuts than the meagre £8 billion or so in the 2005 Tory manifesto. (How times change!) Anywhere, here's Flight with worries about changes to the benefit system:

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.

(I don't normally link to the Daily Mail, but in this case it seems strangely appropriate.)

This is the old eugenics strain coming back into Tory thinking - the idea that we need incentives to encourage the rich (who are, according to the theory, more intelligent, hardworking, or more worthwhile in some other way) to have more kids while putting the reverse incentives in place to stop the poor overrunning us with feckless offspring.

It's not a new argument at all - and it was heavily associated with certain parts of the British Left in the pre-World War 2 era (e.g. H.G. Wells, the Webbs etc.) But since 1945 the Right has made all the running on this issue. The most memorable intervention came from Keith Joseph, briefly in the running for the leadership of the Conservative party in 1974 after Ted Heath had been removed from office after failing to heed the advice of the then 5 year old Dave Cameron to form a coalition with the Liberals under Jeremy Thorpe.

I'll quote from Tony Benn's account of the Joseph speech in his diary for 19 October 1974, as it's really quite excellent (I have been recently rediscovering the Benn diaries from this period and will be referring to them more often in posts over the next few months as the parallels between now and the seventies are really quite striking in so many ways):

Joseph's speech on 'The remoralisation of Britain' was an attack on permissiveness on the Mary Whitehouse model, but had advocated birth control for poor families so as to reduce the number of children they would produce, since the mothers were unfit to look after them. It was a complete master-race philosophy; the theory that the problem is the immorality of the poor rather than poverty is a most reactionary idea bordering on fascism.

Quite so, and this really all comes back to the basic tenet that if you scratch a 'libertarian' Conservative like Joseph, Hunt or Flight, you'll basically find a reactionary authoritarian right winger.

It was disgusting in 1974 and it's disgusting now. This is the kind of crap that's masquerading as mainstream 'cuddly' politics under the guise of the most reactionary British govt since the 1930s. Aided and abetted by those spineless Lib Dem collaborators. At least Colchester MP Bob Russell had the decency to condemn flight for his remarks. (Sure, Dave also slapped flight down but given that Hunt said pretty much the same thing with nary a whimper from No 10, did he really mean it? Or is it just only OK to say this kind of thing if you're one of Dave's mates?)

Next stop - "Coalition announces sterlisation for welfare claimants". I kid you not.


Van Patten said...

A very old argument - but whilst people might recoil from the implications, in a time of economic hardship, it returns to the fore. The question,however cloaked is usually:

'Why are people able to have children without the wherewithal to pay for them, and who foots the bill?'

Your tactic, to represent the argument as 'blaming the victim' is as old as the argument itself. Of course the children born in such circumstances are innocent in the sense of not being responsible for their parents' procreation but nevertheless, your argument appears to be:

'Let anyone have as many children as they want as the state will always cough up the necessary funds to enable you to maintain your current lifestyle regardless'

The old maxim of 'who pays the piper' surely holds true. I'm not a huge fan of Flight in particular. Hunt is reminiscent of the excellent Norman Tebbit in some of his utterances, if not his background. Also rereading an interesting take on the 1980's , the Downing Street Years:

' The howls of outrage that greeted his (Tebbit's)appointment from the Hard left were proof I had chosen wisely. THIS WAS A MAN THEY FEARED!'

Do I see fear on the faces of the various leftist groups discomfited by hunt's utterances? Not yet, but going forward who knows?

If you wish to call if fascism, that's a reductio ad Hitlerum argument which doesn't really carry significant weight. At the moment, the economics of child raising for people on slightly above average incomes in the South East in particular are very challenging. How is it fair that people that pay tax, are in employment and pay often quite high private sector rents are in no position to even start a family with one child, let alone have any number of offspring they choose? Can this be justified, by Wedgie Benn or yourself, beyond labelling those who have perhaps 'thought the unthinkable' and indeed in the case of the late Lord Joseph and Howard Flight, I assume 'said the unsayable' as proto-Fascists. Makes my previous use of the term 'Sino-North Korean agent' look almost realistic.

giroscoper said...

"Why are people able to have children without the wherewithal to pay for them, and who fits the bill?"

Er... because we haven't introduced compulsory sterilisation for poor people yet? And presumably your argument is that we should?

Or perhaps you would rather that we didn't sterilise people but instead kids in large, poor families experience malnourishment because the parents haven't got enough money to feed them?

Or maybe you'd prefer a return to the workhouse.

Like Tony Benn said... a reactionary position bordering on fascism.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you need to read the history of Eugenics before you comment on it - Eugenics isn't specific to a political party (like you suggest - it's a Tory thing)... it spans all parties...

William Beveridge, you know, the guy that 'invented' the welfare state in the UK - adopted by Labour, was a prominent member of the Galton Inst better know as the Eugenics Society -

Has it ever occurred to you that all the welfarism IS eugenics and not the other way round... people that advocate welfare are the REAL eugenicists in society, because the person that introduced (Beveridge) welfare believed in social engineering and Eugenics...

So you're playing right into 'their' hands - making a party issue out of this when its not AND actually supporting the very thing that you're supposedly railing against.... it's because of this ignorance from people like you that they can get away with so much of this stuff - go do some research and reading...

There is NO difference between left and right. No difference between Labour, Tory and Libs... they all use FORCE to promote their aims and ALL follow the philosophy of Keynes HIMSELF A MEMBER OF THE EUGENICS SOCIETY...

What the country needs is freedom from government of all kinds - sadly this will never happen whilst people like believe that there is any way a difference between the parties... it's just to give people like you the illusion that you have a 'choice', in the mean time they can carry out their eugenics ideas AND run off will all the money... WELL DONE YOU.

Keep seeing things as left and right and YOU contribute to harming the poorest people in the country... and don't even get me started on the BoE - that's a whole other topic that i'm sure you haven't even given the slightest thought too... i hope i'm wrong.

Grow up.

Anonymous said...

There are a couple of points I would like to pick up here. There is a difference between being poor and hardworking and in possession of the sort of values that we would all like to see people grow up with and being feckless and happy to rely on hand-outs. Many of my mother's generation were poor (as opposed to live in poverty) but have grown up to be fine members of society. The issue is surely being entirely dependent on benefits not being poor. Secondly, we need mothers to have more children but the better off seem to be more selfish than others, wanting to have a family and two large incomes at the same time, part funded by the taxpayer footing the bill for childcare. Yes, we may have less tax coming into the pot if one parent stays at home during a child's formative years but that may be a small price to pay if future generations grow up with a heightened feeling of self worth.