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Professor Callum Brown
University of Glasgow
Research Fellowship

The Humanist Network: social and medical reform in Britain 1930–1980

In the mid twentieth century Britain experienced a sweeping reform of its moral values, social-policy legislation and internationalism. Callum Brown’s project proposes a new explanation of who caused it

Credit: Jim Walsh/CHES

From the 1950s to the 1970s various things were abolished in Britain: judicial capital and corporal punishment (hanging and flogging); and theatre censorship. Decriminalised were: suicide and attempted suicide; medical abortion (except in Northern Ireland); and homosexual relations between two men over 21 in private in England and Wales. Newly permitted were: IVF conceptions and sterilisation. Widely permitted was independence for British colonies. Newly outlawed were many forms of gender and racial equalities. Widely promoted were: liberal policies on mental health provisions and revised judicial treatment of children. And campaigned for, but without success though ethically influential, were nuclear disarmament and voluntary euthanasia. 

This moral reformation is traditionally explained by, first, the election of a progressive Labour Government in 1966 with Roy Jenkins as Home Secretary; and second, liberal theologians coming to dominate the Church of England and to pioneer reforms. 

I pose a new solution: that a small but influential band of progressive secular humanists formed a network from the 1930s to 1970s to theorise and campaign for all of these individual reforms. I have found evidence for this network of c. 60 people – scientists, medical consultants, social scientists, mathematicians, journalists – belonging to the Ethical Union, the Progressive League and the South Place Ethical Society at Conway Hall. They helped to found and dominate new pressure groups: the Abortion Law Reform Association, Marriage Law Reform Society, Homosexual Law Reform Society, Voluntary Euthanasia Society, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Direct Action Committee and Committee of 100. They had influence in other quarters too, including campaigns for the United Nations, sex education and contraceptive advice. 

My project seeks to expose the operations of this network. I will be reading the private correspondence between the 60 individuals and within reform organisations, MI5 files on the c. 30 individuals under surveillance for suspicion, almost always false, of being communists or ‘fellow travellers’ and examining humanists within science and medical organisations, including the Tots and Quots private science club. The outcome will be a new narrative of how Britain sprang from moral conservatism to progressive liberalism.

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