The April issue of Common Wealth devotes several
paragraphs to the problem of the falling British birthrate. A good deal of
what it says is true, but it also lets drop the following remarks:
know-alls are quick to point to contraceptives, nutritional errors,
infertility, selfishness, economic insecurity, etc., as basic causes of
decline. But facts do not support them. In Nazi Germany, where
contraceptives are illegal, the birthrate has reached a record low ebb,
whereas in the Soviet Union, where there are no such restrictions,
population is healthily on the up and up . . . . Reproduction, as the
Peckham experiment has helped to prove, is stimulated in an environment
marked by fellowship and cooperation . . . . Once meaning and purpose are
restored to life, the wheels of production are kept humming, and life is
again an adventure instead of just an endurance, we shall hear no more of
the baby shortage.
It is not fair to the public to treat all-important
subjects in this slapdash way. To begin with, you would gather from the
passage quoted above that Hitler
lowered the German birthrate. On the contrary, he raised it to levels
unheard-of during the Weimar
Republic. Before the war it was above replacement level, for the first
time in many years. The catastrophic drop in the German birthrate began in
1942, and must have been partly caused by so many German males being away
from home. Figures cannot be available yet, but the Russian birthrate must
also certainly have dropped over the same period.
You would also gather that the high Russian
birthrate dates from the Revolution.
But it was also high in Czarist times. Nor is there any mention of the
countries where the birthrate is highest of all, that is, India, China, and
(only a little way behind) Japan. Would it be accurate to say, for instance,
that a South Indian peasant’s life is ‘an adventure instead of just an
The one thing that can be said with almost complete
certainty on this subject is that a high birthrate goes with a low standard
of living, and vice versa. There are few if any real exceptions to this.
Otherwise the question is exceedingly complex. It is, all the same, vitally
important to learn as much about it as we can, because there will be a
calamitous drop in our own population unless the present trend is reversed
within ten or, at most, twenty years. One ought not to assume, as some
people do, that this is impossible, for such changes of trend have often
happened before. The experts are proving now that our population will be
only a few millions by the end of this century, but they were also proving
in 1870 that by 1940 it would be 100 millions. To reach replacement level
again, our birthrate would not have to take such a sensational upward turns
as, for instance, the Turkish birthrate did after Mustapha
Kemal took over. But the first necessity is to find out why
populations rise and fall, and it is just as unscientific to assume that a
high birthrate is a byproduct of Socialism
as to swallow everything that is said on the subject by childless Roman
When I read of the goings-on in the
House of Commons
the week before last, I could not help being reminded of a little incident
that I witnessed twenty years ago and more.
It was at a village cricket match. The captain of
one side was the local squire who, besides being exceedingly rich, was a
vain, childish man to whom the winning of this match seemed extremely
important. Those playing on his side were all or nearly all his own tenants.
The squire’s side were batting, and he himself
was out and was sitting in the pavilion. One of the batsmen accidentally hit
his own wicket at about the same moment as the ball entered the
wicketkeeper’s hands. ‘That’s not out,’ said the squire promptly,
and went on talking to the person beside him. The umpire, however, gave a
verdict of ‘out’, and the batsman was half-way back to the pavilion
before the squire realized what was happening. Suddenly he caught sight of
the returning batsman, and his face turned several shades redder.
‘What! ‘ he cried, ‘he’s given him out?
Nonsense! Of course he’s not out!’ And then, standing up, he cupped his
hands and shouted to the umpire: ‘Hi, what did you give that man out for?
He wasn’t out at all!’
The batsman had halted. The umpire hesitated, then
recalled the batsman to the wicket and the game went on.
I was only a boy at the time, and this incident
seemed to me about the most shocking thing I had ever seen. Now, so much do
we coarsen with the passage of time, my reaction would merely be to inquire
whether the umpire was the squire’s tenant as well.
Attacking Mr C. A. Smith and myself in the Malvern
Torch for various remarks about the Christian religion, Mr Sidney Dark
grows very angry because I have suggested that the belief in personal
immortality is decaying. ‘I would wager,’ he says, ‘that if a Gallup
poll were taken seventy-five per cent (of the British population) would
confess to a vague belief in survival.’ Writing elsewhere during the same
week, Mr Dark puts it at eighty-five per cent.
Now, I find it very rare to meet anyone, of
whatever background, who admits to believing in personal immortality. Still,
I think it quite likely that if you asked everyone the question and put
pencil and paper in his hands, a fairly large number (I am not so free with
my percentages as Mr Dark) would admit the possibility that after death
there might be ‘something’. The point Mr Dark has missed is that the
belief, such as it is, hasn’t the actuality it had for our forefathers.
Never, literally never in recent years, have I met anyone who gave me the
impression of believing in the next world as firmly as he believed in the
existence of, for instance, Australia. Belief in the next world does not
influence conduct as it would if it were genuine. With that endless
existence beyond death to look forward to, how trivial our lives here would
seem! Most Christians profess to believe in Hell. Yet have you ever met a
Christian who seemed as afraid of Hell as he was of cancer? Even very devout
Christians will make jokes about Hell. They wouldn’t make jokes about
leprosy, or R.A.F. pilots with their faces burnt away: the subject is too
painful. Here there springs into my mind a little triolet by the late G.
a pity that Poppa has sold his soul,
It makes him sizzle at breakfast so.
The money was useful, but still on the whole
It’s a pity that Poppa has sold his soul
When he might have held on like the Baron de Coal,
And not cleared out when the price was low.
It’s a pity that Poppa has sold his soul,
It makes him sizzle at breakfast so.
Chesterton, a Catholic, would presumably have said
that he believed in Hell. If his next-door neighbour had been burnt to death
he would not have written a comic poem about it, yet he can make jokes about
somebody being fried for millions of years. I say that such belief has no
reality. It is a sham currency, like the money in Samuel
Butler’s Musical Banks.