Chesterton and the Feeble-Minded

Hanwell  – London County Asylum c.1890

“Every tramp who is sulky, every labourer who is shy, every rustic who is eccentric, can easily be brought under such conditions as were designed for homicidal maniacs.”

G.K Chesterton

I have just read the umpteenth article that lauds the Scandinavian social system ( this time, about Norway via à vis gender equality in some scrambled argument for Scottish independence on a well-known Christian website). It is undoubtedly true that Scandinavian countries are ‘ahead’ of ours in some important areas of public and social policy.  What bothers me a little is that the cartoon version of other nations and societies is always taken as a guide to public policy by us enfeebled Brits to advance an argument for one ‘single-issue’ or another. For example, the French were held up as an example to follow when the pernicious legislation changing the licensing laws was passed. The Germans are lauded for their education system. Last night I heard a radio host praising Switzerland for its system of popular referenda. We love our dream of Italian family life and cooking  and the dolce far niente. Oh, and the craic.

The problem with this approach is that it is intellectually feeble…we pick one aspect of a country’s life to use to bolster an argument without considering its history or culture or the broader aspects of its social, economic and political structure.  I do not disagree with the broad liberal thrust of public policy in countries such as Sweden. But I always remember what else countries have done, including the Scandinavian countries and many others.  And one matter on my mind today is the series of the shabby forced sterilisation programmes which many, many countries enacted under the influence of the Eugenics movement or, later, following the policy of population control.

In Britain, we narrowly escaped such a programme. In 1913, the Mental Deficiency Bill came before Parliament.  It made provision for the institutional care of people who we would today term ‘people with learning difficulties’. It was preceded by a Private Members Bill introduced in 1912 named the ‘Feeble-Minded Control Bill’, which failed as a result of a determined campaign by one GK Chesterton, who termed it the ‘Feeble-Minded Bill’. The fact that the Mental Deficiency Act, as passed, contained no provision for compulsory sterilisation is due in no small measure to the man whom Dean Inge, an Anglican cleric who advocated eugenics, called an ‘irrational prophet’. It is important to note that Chesterton saw the Eugenics movement – and the legislative provisions being brought forward to meet its demands – as a clear and direct attack on the poor, citing as one of many examples a woman who lost her children because there was no running water in her cottage, despite the fact that her children were well-loved and healthy.

There are some proper articles here and here.

I do not want to bring up the very obvious parallels. I also do not want to indulge myself in ‘whatabouttery’ because I am only too aware of the many many other injustices and, indeed, crimes,  that were done to people in what used to be called ‘bins’ for very good reasons. I just think we ought to remain sober-minded and vigilant regarding the fashionable issues of the day and keep our memories and our principles always firmly in mind. We have to be tough-minded and compassionate. Happy to discuss, as they say….

Image rights here.

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