Breeding for Britain

Angelique Richardson

According to a recent article in the Sun on Sunday, an unnamed Tory minister is of the view that ‘we need to have more children. The rate keeps falling. Look at Hungary – they cut taxes for mothers who have more children.’ As Zoe Williams pointed out in the Guardian, the article appeared on the same day that Nadhim Zahawi (then the Cabinet Office minister, now the Tory party chairman) and Suella Braverman (then and now the home secretary) had discussed a plan to tackle ‘bad migration’ by capping the number of children foreign students can bring to the UK.

The phrase ‘bad immigration’ crops up perennially in Parliament. In 1937, in a debate over the extension of the 1922 Empire Settlement Bill, which aimed to increase the presence of Britons in territories of the British Empire, William Mabane, the Liberal MP for Huddersfield, declared:

I am satisfied that the facts about the Dominions are so good that, if they are told accurately, not fewer but more people would be attracted to migration, and more of the right kind of person. I should like to see the appeal of the Dominions made an appeal, not to those who are doing badly to escape, but to those who are doing well to go and do better … I have come to the conclusion, after as careful a study as I can make of the problem, that on the whole assisted migration is bad migration.

In 2016, the crossbench peer Lord Bilimoria said: ‘There is good immigration and bad immigration, and international students should be encouraged.’ Bilimoria is chancellor of Birmingham University. ‘Our higher education is, of course, vital to our economy,’ he said, and ‘the government’s attitude to international students is economically super-illiterate.’

The difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ immigration, on this account, is a question of economics. Migrants who are going to be economically productive can be as reproductive as they like. But only within reason. More than four children, Zahawi told Sky News on 10 October, and they are out. Never mind that only postgraduate students and government-sponsored undergraduates can bring dependants to the UK, and few of them have four children. The image draws on a theme of reckless reproduction that goes back to Thomas Malthus. It related at first to class, but merged with ideas of race as economic relations (e.g. exploitation) or situations (e.g. poverty) came, through the course of the 19th century, to be seen as inevitable. This biologistic development – which misattributes social or geographical differences to biology – underpins the concept of race and the social divisions it is used to justify.

In the 1803 edition of his essay on population, Malthus introduced the notion of ‘nature’s mighty feast’: ‘Nature wishing that all her guests should have plenty, and knowing that she could not provide for unlimited numbers, humanely refused to admit fresh comers when her table was already full.’ There were not only guests at nature’s table, but also ‘intruders’ and ‘claimants’. In the struggle for existence, there was no provision for the poor. For Malthus, war, famine and disease were not only inevitable but necessary and ‘humane’.

Francis Galton’s romance ‘The Eugenic College of Kantsaywhere’ displays a strong strand of racialist hereditarianism. He first thought of the story in 1864 but wrote it in 1910, having coined the term eugenics in 1883. In Kantsaywhere, ‘all immigrants are more or less suspected,’ he writes. ‘Labour Colonies are established where the very weakly are segregated under conditions that are not onerous, except that they must work hard and live in celibacy.’ ‘The propagation of children by the Unfit is looked upon by the inhabitants of Kantsaywhere as a crime to the State.’

Class is firmly biologised, and ‘the ’arry and ’arriet class is almost entirely unknown in Kantsaywhere.’ Henry Mayhew, in the second volume of London Labour and the London Poor (1851), had described ‘dustmen’ as ‘generally speaking, an hereditary race’, and in volume three (1861) wrote:

In passing from the skilled operative of the West-end to the unskilled workman of the Eastern quarter of London, the moral and intellectual change is so great, that it seems as if we were in a new land, and among another race.

There is a striking continuity from Malthus and Galton to the recent resurgence of anti-immigration rhetoric and policy in much of the Western world. In the words of Theresa May, then home secretary, in 2012: ‘The aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants.’ The Windrush generation have been detained, denied legal rights, threatened with deportation and, in more than sixty cases, wrongly deported as a result of the hostile environment policy. Braverman has been accused by refugee charities of putting lives at risk with her incendiary claim that the south coast is facing an ‘invasion’ of migrants, the day after a firebomb attack on a detention centre in Dover.

Galton’s narrator, Professor Donoghue, a visitor to the eugenic fantasy world who is anxious to get his PG (Passed in Genetics) degree so he will be eligible to marry Miss Allfancy, learns that ‘those who fail to pass the Poll examination in Eugenics’ are ‘undesirable as individuals, and dangerous to the community, owing to the practical certainty that they will propagate their kind if unchecked. They are subjected to surveillance and annoyance if they refuse to emigrate.’ The immigration laws ‘are quite as severe as those in America and elsewhere, to exclude impecunious immigrants’, and in Kantsaywhere they also serve to exclude the ‘constitutionally unfit’.

Ships, as already mentioned, are only allowed to disembark their passengers subject to the fulfilment of certain accepted conditions. If unfulfilled, the ship-owners are obliged to convey them back to whence they came. Registered medical men are established at the principal ports from which immigrants arrive, whose certificate that a person has passed the ordinary test for fitness in body and mind is accepted. It exempts them from the somewhat more severe and tedious examination of which I have already spoken, which is conducted in a building attached to the Custom House and must be successfully gone through before they are allowed to disembark even for a short residence. They are required later on to pass the Poll examination which allows them to become citizens of Kantsaywhere.

The grades of unfitness on the part of those who are married are determined by the number of their joint marks. Immigrant parents both of whom have received positive marks at the Poll examination may keep their children with them, but not otherwise.

Eugenic ideas were as popular on the left as the right. In his Modern Utopia (1905), H.G. Wells outlined a eugenic scheme for subsidising motherhood (but not for all):

Suppose the State secures to every woman who is, under legitimate sanctions, becoming or likely to become a mother, that is to say who is duly married, a certain wage from her husband to secure her against the need of toil and anxiety, suppose it pays her a certain gratuity upon the birth of a child, and continues to pay at regular intervals sums sufficient to keep her and her child in independent freedom, so long as the child keeps up to the minimum standard of health and physical and mental development. Suppose it pays more upon the child when it rises markedly above certain minimum qualifications, physical or mental, and, in fact, does its best to make thoroughly efficient motherhood a profession worth following.

The discourse of restriction and responsibility inculcated by Malthus underpins the eugenics of Galton and Wells, and the 21st-century policies of Western governments. (Charles Darwin, by contrast, made clear his increasing opposition to Galton’s views: intentionally neglecting the vulnerable, he wrote, would lead to the loss of ‘the noblest part of our nature’.) In the US the Clinton administration introduced a welfare cap through the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (1996), giving states the option of refusing additional support to families on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. In 2017, the UK introduced a two-child benefit cap, reinscribing Malthusian prejudices against class. History tells us that tax breaks for the wealthy, including for selected mothers, will only knock back further those who are already floored by harsh economic conditions.

Anxieties about global overpopulation, which inform policies that seek to encourage differential class fertility, are inflected by racial ideas about which groups should be allowed to reproduce, though they are often assumed to be a genuine expression of concern in the face of the catastrophic climate emergency. Yet the most affluent countries are responsible for 92 per cent of excess carbon emissions (the US is responsible for 40 per cent, the EU 29 per cent), while low-income countries are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Encouraging one socioeconomic group to reproduce at the expense of others has distinctly eugenic overtones and needs to be consigned to history.


  • 7 November 2022 at 3:44am
    Ken Gelder says:
    No one would disagree with this article but most of what it tells us is well known and already consigned to history. The question is, how does the world manage populations levels now, in a world where levels of growth – population, consumer, production – must be significantly reduced in order for the planet to survive? On curtailing population growth, China gave this a shot for a while, with little to show for the effort. Many affluent ultra-consuming first world countries are now encouraging, and rewarding, childbirth as populations age: where I live, Australia, this encouragement is given to everyone, no matter their class, ethnicity, etc. Anti-abortion states in the US have just given the green light to full term pregnancy no matter what the circumstances: women, whoever they may be, can no longer choose not to have children. Affluent countries also aim to keep their ultra-consuming populations alive for much longer, while the sheer scarcity of food, clean water etc in other parts of the world cause untold early deaths. So what does this article want for the future? Who knows. Malthus thought that the poor laws encouraged population growth among the poor which would only increase their levels of poverty; although to be fair he didn't much like poverty, just as he didn't like extreme levels of wealth. Despite wanting poor families to be smaller, he disapproved of both birth control and abortion and had a fatalistic view of war and other e.g. environmental catastrophes as a "natural" way of solving the overpopulation crisis. The militant/apocalyptic Christian Right would probably like him, a lot; but the view of environmental catastrophe as a "natural" correction to human over-consumption and excess is also commonplace these days.

    • 7 November 2022 at 3:19pm
      adamppatch says: @ Ken Gelder
      Population growth is a red herring when talking about climate change. CO2 emissions have grown twice as fast as population over the last 60 years. Those countries with the greatest emissions have close to zero population growth, and those with rapid population growth produce far fewer emissions per capita. This means that the only places in which any significant impact can be made on population growth are those with relatively low emissions. We know that population growth will decrease in poorer countries if they become richer, but we also know that their emissions will likely increase. To prevent climate change, we don't need to tackle population growth, we need to find ways for economically developed countries to produce and consume sustainably. If the rich countries can get create models for sustainable growth, then they will also provide a model for green development for developing countries, which, if successful, will automatically bring population growth to sustainable levels. On the other hand, if rich countries can't get their emissions under control, then it doesn't really matter how high or low the global population is, most of us are fucked anyway. The onus is entirely on the rich, heavily polluting countries to tackle the climate crisis by reforming or revolutionising their economic models. Focussing on population growth is just one more way rich countries find to shirk that responsibility.

  • 17 November 2022 at 11:13am
    Neil Foxlee says:
    Professor Robinson also appears in the six-part Radio 4 series Bad Blood: The Story of Eugenics ( ), presented by Adam Rutherford, author of Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics.