Humanists contributed immeasurably to ethical debates in Britain in the mid-twentieth century. Relatively small in number, yet often vocal and articulate, the humanists made their voices heard in a land where moral politics remained dominated by Christianity. There is much to be said about the rise and fall and rise again of one of the movement’s major organisations, Humanists UK, which emerged from the soup of 19th century counterculture to be constituted as the Union of Ethical Societies in 1898.
But the focus here is upon some of the thinkers and activists whose humanist views informed and contributed to progressive political campaigning in Britain from the 1940s to the 1960s. Most of these people were familiar figures in British humanist and secularist organisations, but some spent most of their time in campaigning for their particular ethical causes. A brief introduction to the activities and concerns of a selection of these people can serve to illustrate the reach of humanist ideas, as well as how these ideas were able with varying degrees of success to influence social policy, moral sensibilities, and even international law.
A concern with the politics of sexual morality has been a staple of the humanist movement since the 19th century, with humanists and rationalists frequently locked in combat with religious conservatives. Humanists contributed immeasurably to the struggle to reform laws and attitudes surrounding sex in the 1950s and 1960s, making the medical and legal case for liberalism in sexual culture and in the process providing a younger generation with ammunition to craft social change.
Humanist intellectuals were vocal in support of gay law reform from its earliest beginnings. They provided some of the least equivocal evidence to the Wolfenden Committee in 1954, generally favouring decriminalisation over the age of eighteen and the social acceptance of gay men. Humanists including the philosopher A.J Ayer, the author E.M Forster, the archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes (wife of playwright J.B. Priestley) and the sociologist Barbara Wootton, were vocal in their support of the Homosexual Law Reform Society upon its foundation in 1958. By contrast, only a handful of liberal clergy joined and they often expressed reservations.
One of the most intriguing personalities in the liberal intellectual vanguard of the fifties was the Ulster Unionist MP, Harford Montgomery Hyde, who repeatedly spoke in favour of reform in the House of Commons, and for his efforts was deselected by his local party. Hyde, whose political career in an establishment political party with a socially conservative electorate required him to remain discreet about his religious views, described himself in his autobiography as having been both a humanist and a rationalist since the 1920s. Although himself heterosexual, Hyde was a staunch ally to the gay movement and in 1968 published one of the first histories of homosexuality written from a sympathetic perspective.
Humanists were active, too, in early sorties against the oppressive moral codes which surrounded heterosexuality prior to the liberalisations of the later 1960s. Eustace Chesser was a humanist and progressive as well as a psychiatrist and researcher who penned a stream of popular advice manuals on aspects of sexualities from the 1940s onwards, along with works on medical sociology. In 1959, Getting Married, a booklet which Chesser published witn the British Medical Association, resulted in a wave of reactionary opposition. The pamphlet, which suggested that pre- and non-marital sex should be the result of individual choices, was withdrawn and a television appearance by Chesser blocked. Undeterred, Chesser then penned a polemical defence of his arguments which aimed to demolish the ‘outmoded’ theological prohibition of sex before marriage.
One of the most strenuous contributions of humanist intellectuals to the politics of morality in post-war Britain was, unfortunately, the least successful. The case for unilateral nuclear disarmament was, in my view, morally unanswerable, yet advancing it relied on attempts to influence transnational politics which would in turn prove futile in the face of the Cold War. A network of elite scientists, including the humanist Jacob Bronowski (who had been one of those dispatched by the British government to assess the impact of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and the nuclear scientist Joseph Rotblat, mobilised in the mid-1950s to oppose nuclear weapons. The majority of signatories of the 1955 Russell-Einstein Manifesto – which opposed nuclear weapons – were humanists. Humanists were well-represented too amongst the membership of the founding executive committee of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in 1957. The CND is perhaps most closely associated with the philosopher Bertrand Russell, a luminary who was widely admired by the public for his unshakable moral convictions and whose bestselling 1927 exposition, Why I am not a Christian, remains in print today.
Barbara Smoker, the campaigner, author and former president of the National Secular Society, formed a link between CND and the leadership of humanist and secularist organisations. She had joined Russell’s short-lived ‘Committee of 100’, a non-violent group campaigning against nuclear weapons, which deployed direct action tactics such as mass demonstrations at locations including American air bases. The idea of the ‘Committee’ was that there would be safety in numbers, as the government would be unwilling to convict so many people at once. Russell’s scheme failed, observed Smoker, when the authorities simply arrested random people, demonstrating that the government was less concerned with justice than he had imagined. When Russell was convicted for his protest activities and obliged to spend two weeks behind bars at the age of ninety, Smoker was amongst his supporters in court. She was also closely involved in the clandestine ‘Spies for Peace’ movement, which worked to reveal and publicise egregious plans by the British state to shelter their elites in secret bunkers while the rest of the population were to be abandoned to perish in the nuclear holocaust.
Another committed humanist was H.G Wells, who in 1931 inspired the foundation of the Progressive League, an organisation which aimed to bring together campaigners and thinkers dedicated to social and ethical reform. Motivated by the catastrophic failure of the League of Nations, by the early 1940s, Wells was very concerned with the development of the concept of universal human rights, with their implicit shift from the rights of nations to those of individuals. His efforts stimulated the formation of the Sankey Commission, chaired by the lawyer John Sankey. This resulted in the Sankey Declaration of the Rights of Man (1940), which was issued for a wide readership in paperback and serialised in the Daily Herald by the journalist and humanist campaigner, Peter Richie Calder, under the succinct title: ‘What are We Fighting For?’
Wells’s and Sankey’s endeavours in turn influenced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) – particularly in terms of vocabulary. Wells appears to have been the originator of the phrase ‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion’ which was inherited by the 1950 European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), which carried the underlying idea of the plurality of secular and religious ideologies, the freedom of worship, and the freedom to change and not to have a religion. Noteworthy, too, was the absence in these documents of the notion of enforcing a state religion and the absence of mention of god or gods. The latter was a source of controversy, and religious interests at the 1948 Congress of Europe insisted on the addition of a reference to ‘common heritage of Christian and other spiritual and cultural values.’
The Sankey Commission’s eleven clauses created paradigms for the thirty articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the eighteen articles of the European Convention, and thence to the development of further international agreements. The contribution of humanists to the creation of the human rights movement requires further research, but it seems clear that the chain of innovation can be traced back to the visionary thinking of H.G Wells, who, as bombs rained down on Britain in the early 1940s, foresaw that the concept of the equality of rights for every human being might be the foundation upon which international co-operation between nations could rest.
These individuals were but a few of the leading figures in Britain who campaigned for real-life change to the ethical basis of national and international laws in the mid-twentieth century, leading the charge for progressive reform. Our book explores their efforts and shared humanist outlook.
The Humanist Movement in Modern Britain: A History of Ethicists, Rationalists and Humanists, by Callum Brown, David Nash and Charlie Lynch (2023), is published by Bloomsbury.
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