Steven Harkins, Boris Johnson and the Victorian elite: Why Inequality is always fair at the top

Steven Harkins (University of Sheffield)

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, was recently criticised for his remarks on the importance of IQ tests and their relevance to equality. Delivering the annual Margaret Thatcher lecture, Johnson said ‘It is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16% of our species have an IQ below 85 and 2% have an IQ above 130’. The Mayor of London’s remarks resurrected a discourse about poverty and inequality that was developed by the intellectuals of Victorian Britain.

The vast inequality of the British Empire was justified by Victorian intellectuals through discourses of cultural superiority. One of the guiding principles of this ideology was the dichotomy between white ‘civilised’ Europeans, and non-European ‘savages’ (Peters 2013:10-11). The advancement of scientific knowledge throughout the Victorian period led to these discourses morphing from cultural to biological justifications of inequality and race. The application of biology to the subject of inequality lent a pseudo-scientific justification to the absence of social justice throughout the British Empire. A variation of these discourses was also used to justify poverty and inequality within the UK. Shortly after the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), Herbert Spencer published his book principles of Biology (1864), where he coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’. Spencer was hugely popular and widely read in the late 19th Century and he was ‘instrumental in popularising the term “evolution” in its modern sense’ (Hawkins 1997:82). Even before Darwin’s seminal text was published, Spencer had argued that ‘under the natural order of things society is constantly excreting its unhealthy, imbecile, slow, vacillating, faithless, members’, through what he describes as a ‘purifying process’ (Spencer, 1851:323-4). Spencer was a key figure in developing what was to become known as ‘social Darwinism’. Francis Galton, the pioneer of the Eugenic movement, echoed Spencer’s conclusions in a letter to Charles Darwin, his cousin, Galton described how natural selection ‘seems to me to spoil and not enhance our breed’ (Hodge and Radick, 2003: 217). In order to stop them from having children, Galton argued that ‘the weak could find a welcome and a refuge in celibate monasteries or sisterhoods’. These discourses of biological inferiority served as elite justifications for the high levels of inequality that existed in Victorian Britain.

Having fallen out of favour for decades, these discourses were resurrected to coincide with the sharp rise in inequality from 1974 onwards. It was in 1974 that Keith Joseph argued that ‘our human stock is threatened’ by mothers ‘in social classes 4 and 5’ having children. Joseph said that:

‘Many of these girls are unmarried, many are deserted or divorced or soon will be. Some are of low intelligence, most of low educational attainment’.

As inequality started to rise sharply in the UK and the US, so did justifications from intellectuals as to why this growing inequality was fair. Charles Murray rose to prominence in the US and UK in the 1990s, he argued that welfare cuts in the United States were necessary in order to stop ‘encouraging the wrong women’ from having children (Herrnstein and Murray 1994:548). According to Murray, social welfare programs designed to help the poor, who have disproportionately low IQ scores, are disastrous for the United States. Murray turned his attentions to the UK in the 1990s and found that, just like in the United States, the UK had a problem with a growing underclass. These arguments influence contemporary policymaking in the UK, when Iain Duncan Smith explained his vision for the Centre for Social Justice in 2005 he cited Charles Murray’s work.

According to Danny Dorling, Boris Johnson’s justifications for inequality reflect the view that ‘those at the top believe that just a few are capable of leading us all. It is a view that makes sense of their lives’. It also makes the case that the vast wealth inequality in the United Kingdom is not the result of injustice but the result of biology or some other natural process. Johnson is unlikely to bring up the subject again, following the results of his latest IQ test, however these discourses will continue to be resurrected as long as those who benefit from vast economic inequality seek to justify its fairness to those who do not.

HAWKINS, M. 1997. Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 1860-1945: Nature as Model and Nature as Threat, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

HERRNSTEIN, R. J. & MURRAY, C. A. 1994. The bell curve : intelligence and class structure in American life, New York ; London, Simon & Schuster, 1996.

HODGE, M. J. S. & RADICK, G. 2003. The Cambridge companion to Darwin, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

PETERS, L. 2013. Dickens and Race, Manchester, Manchester University Press.

SPENCER, H. 1851. Social Statics: or the Conditions essential to Human Happiness specified, and the first of them developed, London.

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