P17. Figures of the Birth-Rate. An Essential Bill. The Decline of British Stock

[Letter to The Times, 3 December 1937, p. 17]

3 December 1937

To the Editor of the Times

Sir,--May I be permitted to make a serious, even an earnest, plea for the Population Bill now before the House of Commons? [1] The case in favour rests upon two propositions--namely, (i) that the population problem is one of great urgency (some would say the most serious which confronts the present generation), and (ii) that the measure proposed is an indispensable step towards its solution.

(i) Experts in this rather difficult subject are agreed that unless the average size of the family is considerably raised above its present level in Great Britain, a very large decline, tending towards the ultimate extinction of the British people, must necessarily, by the mere laws of arithmetic, occur. Cynics are apt to rejoin that this is a not unwelcome eventuality. It must be observed, however, that while a great British decline is entailed by existing facts, the decline in certain other peoples is only prognosticated and problematical. Further, however far birth-rates fall elsewhere, there will be an interval of some generations in which we shall be more or less eliminated, while others rule the roost. Surely those with a grain of patriotism left in them would wish the British people to survive to the last act of the human drama.

The less cynical may hope that some natural counteracting forces will save the situation for us. But the trouble is this. If in the next generation or two the size of the family is not raised, the eventual decline to a handful will be inevitable; yet in this preliminary period numbers will not fall greatly. When in the next stage numbers do begin to fall in a spectacular way, it will already be too late for the counteracting forces, since the great majority of women alive will be over the child-bearing age. Our peril cannot become manifest to the man in the street until it is too late to cure it. The present Bill is designed to render possible an authoritative and precise statement of the existing facts and their arithmetical consequences for the future.

(ii) It is not possible to explain within a narrow space why existing birth statistics in this country are inadequate. [2] That they are so is beyond question. While we know the broad fact that the existing size of family spells a disastrous decline, we have to fill in our knowledge by an analogy from countries which supply better statistics. We have to assume that our age-distribution of fertility--as distinguished from its absolute level--is not dissimilar from theirs. To this extent we are parasitic upon other countries for our information. This is a humiliating position.

It might be objected that it is enough to know the broad outline. But this will clearly not be so, if remedial measures, such as family endowments, [3] are tried out. We shall require to be able to trace their effect year by year and decade by decade, and shall not be able to do this with precision with the knowledge at present at our disposal. Moreover, the greater our knowledge, the better will be our diagnosis of the cause of the present trouble, and the more quickly shall we be able to put our fingers on the right remedy.

The great danger in the modern world is the divorce between those who have specialized knowledge and those who have to act. It is true that the scepticism of the man in the street towards the search by scientists for meticulous precision may often be healthy. A good joke may often be the right rejoinder to a piece of scientific pedantry. But not always. If we are to escape the dangers of specialization, men of action must have a sound instinct for the difference between the pedantic and the really important claims of science. In the present instance any man of average intelligence may by accepting an hour's instruction from a vital statistician assure himself that the two points which I have outlined above are correct. The attitude of the House of Commons to the present Bill will be a crucial test of the feel of a democratic body for the difference between sense and nonsense.

I am, &c.

R. F. Harrod

Christ Church, Oxford, Dec. 1.

  1. 1. On 10 February 1937 the population question was discusses before the House of Commons. Being of the opinion that the tendency of population to decline could well constitute a danger to the maintenance of the British Empire, a resolution asked the government to institute an inquiry into the problem and its social and economic consequences (Official Reports, Fifth Series. Parliamentary Debates. Commons, vol. 320, pp. 482-537). The government secured for this inquiry the collaboration of the Registrar-General and the Population Investigation Committee, which was formed under the chairmanship of Carr-Saunders in 1936 on the initiative and with a partial sponsorship of the Eugenics Society (Official Reports, Fifth Series. Parliamentary Debates. Commons, vol. 321, p. 1336, vol. 323 p. 1235 and vol. 324 pp. 1610-11). It soon emerged that some statistics were necessary in order to investigate the trend of population, and the Minister of Health--H. Kingsley Wood--announced a bill intended to secure such an information, which was presented on 28 October and discussed on 29 November 1937.

    The second reading of the Population (Statistics) Bill gave rise to some opposition, regarding the confidential and intimate questions it elicited, the possibility that the information could be an issue in legal proceedings regarding adultery, bastardy or bigamy, and the fact that power of interrogation was assigned not to officials but to private persons (Official Reports, Fifth Series. Parliamentary Debates. Commons, vol. 324, p. 1611, vol. 328, p. 259, and vol. 329, pp. 1717-850. Copy of the latter issue with the debates is in HP VI-128).

    Harrod seems to have particularly concerned with A. P. Herbert's speech (see letter 720 R). By replying to this letter, Herbert offered Harrod the chance for rejoining with a further letter to The Times: "The Population Bill" ( 1937:18 ), here reproduced as press item 18 ; see in particular note 2 to that article for reference to Herbert's reply.

    For a list of Harrod's interwar writings on population see note 1 to press item 10 .

    2. Harrod had already stressed the lack of accurate statistical information for calculating the reproduction rate in "The Population Problem" ( 1937:1 ), press item 12 , [jump to page] .

    3. For Harrod's proposal concerning family allowances see in particular "The Problem of the British Birth Rate" ( 1937:10 ), part II, pp. 23-26.

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