Echoes of eugenics in Osborne’s budget

Eugenics is alive and well – in the Tory budget. Nicholas Cimini explains why.

Logo from the Second International Eugenics Conference, 1921
Logo from the Second International Eugenics Conference, 1921

Last week we saw the first all-Tory budget in almost two decades and with it the introduction of a “two-child policy” that cuts tax credits and housing benefits for families with more than two children. This means new claimants will not receive the benefits for their third or subsequent children, starting from 17 April next year. George Osborne introduced the policy in his budget day speech, alongside tax breaks for the rich and many other brutal attacks on young people and the poor. He talked about trying to combat a “culture of dependency” and described claiming benefits as a “lifestyle choice”. Iain Duncan Smith, the Welfare Minister, punched the air with delight when he heard Osborne’s plans.

The attempt by politicians and others to control and “improve” populations through policies geared toward reproduction, family size and family composition has a long and muddied history. This is a history that mainstream historians say we have long since left-behind but which, in reality, continues to raise its ugly head: the history of eugenics.

There remains some disagreement about the precise meaning and legacy of the term “eugenics”. This disagreement stems in large part from the abstract nature of the word itself: a portmanteau combining “eu” (Latin for “good” or “well”) and “gen” (that is, “birth”). Francis Galton is attributed as coining the term in 1883. He describes eugenics as the “science” of the “good-in-birth”. He also refers to the science of the “well-born” and “noble in hereditary”. For Galton’s followers, “positive eugenics” sought to improve the chances of the “most fit” hereditary traits and “negative” to contain the “least fit”. The traits considered most fit were those that Galton himself embodied: white, educated and middle class.

The conventional history of eugenics is full with frightening tales of coerced sterilisations, enforced abortions and racism. This brutality culminated in Nazi genocide and other dictatorial attempts at population control. Hence, according to conventional histories at least, eugenics was discredited and abandoned in 1945.

In reality, it was not just racists and right-wingers who believed in the science of the well-born and there was more to eugenics than coercive measures. Galton’s was a satisfyingly ambiguous understanding that could be applied across a range of contexts: reproductive science and medicine, healthcare, social policy, education, family planning, social work, psychology, sociology and so forth. It included both coercive and consensual measures, ranging from the institutionalisation of disabled babies to moralising about “race poisons” such as drugs and alcohol, and from marriage prohibition to maintaining sperm-banks of “good” hereditary stock. Financial inducements were often given, with Galton himself arguing that financial disincentives be given to “feebleminded” families.

Eugenicists therefore came from a range of different backgrounds. They also disagreed over their aims and ambitions. Hence, the term eugenics could be tailored to suit various political and philosophical ambitions and so in the first half of the twentieth century there exists libertarian, utilitarian, socialist, feminist, religious, apocalyptic, millenarian, right-wing, racist and conservative variations of eugenic thought.

This diversity in eugenic thought is not just a historical curiosity. In fact, it is essential for mainstream accounts to misrepresent the history of eugenics and associate it almost exclusively with coercive measures. “Eugenics was a coercive philosophy based on pseudoscience and racism, whereas practices today are enlightened and centred around individual choice” – or so the story goes. Denying the historical diversity of eugenics allows mainstream accounts to deny any suggestion of eugenic influence today. Much of the language may have changed but the underlying idea of controlling reproduction for the common good remains the same.

On budget day George Osborne breathed new life into an old idea. By deeming families on benefits to have made poor “lifestyle choices”, and introducing punitive measures targeted at limiting the size of these families, Osborne has introduced a policy akin to the eugenics policies of the first half of the twentieth century. The ongoing legacy of these ideas needs to be acknowledged and confronted.


  1. Good to point out the variation of those for and against eugenics in the past. A good summary and source for this is John Carey’s ‘Intellectuals and the Masses’. So there was a strong streak of eugenics running through the Fabians and people in or around the Bloomsbury Group e.g. H.G.Wells and the Webbs. Marie Stopes was keen on it. Meanwhile Zola ion the last years of his life was strongly anti-neo-Malthusian, was against abortion, wet nursing, birth control, sterilisation, and against all form of eugenics – partly because he saw it as a conspiracy against the working-class. This is the theme of his novel ‘Fécondité’ which has never been fully translated into English because of the ghastly scenes of abortion and infanticide, plucked from medical textbooks and the like. His ‘solution’ was for women to have many, many babies, and for all of them to be breast-fed.

  2. This isn’t just something coming from the Tories. Labour leader Harriat Harman is prepared to support benefit cuts that will have their main impact on lone parents, 90% of whom are women. Harriat Harman spent the election driving up and down in a pink van telling everyone what a great feminist she was and how much she would do for women. Fellow ‘feminist’ Yvette Cooper supports the benefit cap which again, you guessed it, will have the worst effect on lone parents. Rather more predictably Blairite Burnham seems to support it too. Only proletarian revolution can bring socialism and gender equality!


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