‘What is their Crime?’ Disability, Race and Eugenics in Britain’s Brexit Debate

By Emmeline Burdett

Disability and the Brexit Debate

One of the features of the debate about Brexit (Britain’s departure from the European Union) has been that Remainers (who should probably now be called Rejoiners) portray people who voted in favour of Brexit as being complicit in the resurgence of aggressive nationalism of which Brexit, along with such things as the presidencies of Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Donald Trump in the United States, is widely seen as forming a part. Rejoiners rightly show this resurgent nationalism as being dangerous not only in itself, but also because it represents an alarming return to the attitudes which facilitated the rise of fascism in the early twentieth century.  The subject of this blog post will be the way in which many Rejoiners assume that being historically-aware requires one to be extremely sensitive to issues of race, but very little else. One of the results of this is that disablist insults (insults which either imply that one’s opponent’s views are the result of being disabled, or which show that implying that one’s opponent is disabled, is socially acceptable in a way that criticising them by using a racial slur, would not be) are thrown around with impunity. One example of this is the attitude to eugenics, which is still widely deemed to be an acceptable suggestion unless it is used in a racist manner.

Eugenics, Low Intelligence and Criminality

The term ‘eugenics’ was coined in 1883 by Francis Galton, a British statistician and cousin of Charles Darwin. He aimed to apply Darwin’s theory of ‘the survival of the fittest’ to human beings, with the idea that this would have various results – namely that races and individuals who were less equipped to triumph in the struggle for existence would gradually die out. Eugenicists sought to encourage this trend by means of both positive eugenics (encouraging ‘desirable’ families to have more children) and negative eugenics (discouraging or actively preventing ‘undesirables’ from having any offspring at all).  It was inevitable that these ideas appealed to other countries too (particularly to those with empires and/or imperial ambitions), and the first international eugenics conference was held in London in 1912.

In the same year as the eugenics conference, the British periodical The Spectator published an article in favour of eugenics. In particular, the article argued that there was a strong link between low intelligence and criminality, and that the only way to break this link was through the use of eugenics:

"The only way of cutting off the constant stream of idiots and imbeciles and feeble-minded persons who help to fill our prisons and workhouses, reformatories, and asylums is to prevent those who are known to be mentally defective from producing offspring. Undoubtedly the best way of doing this is to place these defectives under control. Even if this were a hardship to the individual it would be necessary for the sake of protecting the race." (The Spectator, 25 May 1912, quoted in an article from the same magazine, April 2016.)
This article’s message was that the only way to reduce the crime rate and protect the rest of society was to contain the ‘feeble-minded’. In other words, people judged to be of low intelligence were being accused of a propensity to criminality in general. Similarly, during the Brexit debate, Rejoiners were accusing Brexiters of low intelligence, which was supposedly the reason for their support for Brexit, and also for extreme right-wing ideologies.  In the context of a discussion about a person who did not remember which way she had voted in the 2016 referendum, and who thought she had voted the same way as the man she was seeing at the time, a Rejoiner commented:

‘This is why universal suffrage is a bad idea, and eugenics is more and more like a good one. Our gene pool seems to have become disproportionately shallow’ (https://www.facebook.com/groups/theverybrexitproblemsclub/permalink/336438150614119 ).

In order to further reinforce the idea that Brexiters are stupid, and that this alleged stupidity manifests itself in such things as support for the extreme right, a member of The Very Brexit Problems Club shared a photograph which had originally been tweeted by the comedian Omid Djalili. The photograph showed two shaven-headed men with swastika tattoos, and at least one of the men was also wearing a Remembrance poppy lapel pin. The caption that Djalili used to accompany the photograph was ‘Swastiska (sic) and poppy has to be the best idiot we’ve seen in recent times’. The person who shared the photograph on Facebook captioned it ‘The best cognitive dissonance stupidity can buy’ (https://www.facebook.com/groups/theverybrexitproblemsclub/permalink/417878972470036).



This fixed idea, that Brexiters were not only stupid, but dangerously stupid, effectively prevented what could have been a serious and fruitful discussion about the state of education (and of politics and society) in Britain, as well as about the role of the British press in influencing opinion on important matters. Such a discussion might even have acknowledged the high levels of factionalism in British society, and have suggested ways of addressing this. It is extremely regrettable that this did not happen. In addition, the free use of terms like ‘idiot’, and approving references to eugenics, from people who pride themselves on their supposed historical awareness, creates the impression that implying that one’s opponent is stupid, is not only a victimless crime, but something completely divorced from history and society.

Eugenics and Race

This can be seen by contrasting the above comments with some made by Rejoiners when eugenics was discussed in connection to race. The British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s advisor Andrew Sabisky had been forced to resign because of various controversial remarks he had made, including saying that black people were less intelligent than white people. One newspaper article was shared on the anti-Brexit Facebook page ‘The Very Brexit Problems Club’ with the comment ‘Mr Eugenics has gone! YES!’ (https://www.facebook.com/groups/theverybrexitproblemsclub/permalink/501347917456474). Reading through the rest of the discussion of this article, it is clear that though Sabinsky advocated eugenics on grounds other than race, (including intelligence), it was his views on race which were seen as unacceptable, particularly in the light of historical justifications for racism, which were themselves based on eugenics.

Though this post has focussed on the Brexit debate, it does point to a wider problem – namely, that it is often seen as quite acceptable to discredit opponents by implying that they are disabled, instead of trying to formulate a more appropriate argument. The persistence of the idea that there is no link between historical denigration of disability and the willingness to do the same thing today seems to suggest that there is an unacknowledged belief that disability prejudice either reflects reality, or simply does not matter. It has been convincingly argued that the post-WW2 insistence that the international eugenics movement of the early twentieth century was a mere historical aberration has helped to facilitate the idea that persecution on the grounds of, for example, race, or political belief, is much more serious than persecution on the grounds of disability, which is viewed as a medical matter, with the attendant suspicion that it must be justifiable (Knittel 2015: 19). This was certainly the message that came out of the Nuremberg Medical Trial of 1946-1947, a US Trial the purpose of which was the prosecution of the main perpetrators of Nazi ‘medical’ crimes. These crimes included the Nazi ‘euthanasia’ programme, during which an estimated 300,000 disabled and mentally ill people were murdered between 1939 and 1945. Despite the fact that the Nuremberg Medical Trial was supposed to prosecute the main perpetrators of this crime, the judges appeared to struggle with the idea that it had been a crime, for they announced in their judgement:

"Whether or not a state may validly enact legislation which imposes euthanasia upon certain classes of its citizens is a question which does not enter into the issues. Assuming that it may do so, the Family of Nations is not obligated to give recognition to such legislation when it manifestly gives legality to plain murder and torture of defenceless and powerless human beings of other nations." (FO 646: 11395)

I am not suggesting that the Brexit debate is anything like the Nazi ‘euthanasia’ programme, but what I am saying is that the idea that disability does not have to be taken as seriously as other aspects of identity has not gone away.

My thanks to Anne Klein and Pieter Verstraete for their help with this blog post, which has gone through many incarnations. 

Emmeline Burdett is an independent researcher, and is currently writing a book about the use of the 'Nazi 'euthanasia' programme in Anglo-US debates about euthanasia. She is also a writer and translator, and in 2018 she published the English translation of Verminkte Stilte (Mutilated Silence) Pieter Verstraete and Christine van Everbroeck's book about the experiences of Belgian soldiers disabled during the course of the First World War.



Susanne Knittel, The Historical Uncanny: Disability, Ethnicity, and the Politics of Holocaust Memory (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015).

FO 646, Case 1 Medical  (U.S. v. Karl Brandt et al), vol. 23. 

 Recommended citation:

Emmeline Burdett (2020): ‘What is their Crime?’ Disability, Race and Eugenics in Britain’s Brexit Debate. In: Public Disability History 5 (2020) 3.

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