Ann Oakley's pages from New Humanist, May/June 2011Barbara Wootton discovered humanism the hard way. Brought up in a conservative academic household in Cambridge, she was expected by her parents to lead a conventionally distinguished life as a classics scholar. The dislocations of the First World War changed all that. The war killed both one of her brothers and the young soldier she married at the age of 20; they had 36 hours together before he was shot in the eye, and his bloodstained uniform was duly returned to her. These events, and the evident degeneration of civilisation they signalled, led Barbara Wootton to abandon religion and classics in favour of humanism and social science. She became a distinguished economist, then, lamenting the economists’ preoccupation with theory, a pioneer social scientist, deploying the tools of social research to promote evidence-based social policy. She was one of the first in Britain systematically to argue that governments have no right to impose on people policies that will not achieve the ends they are supposed to, or which will do so only at the cost of demonstrable harm.

The list of “firsts” to which Barbara Wootton‘s name is attached is quite formidable. For example, she was the first woman to give University lectures in Cambridge in 1921, be a member of a national policy commission in 1924, go as a delegate to a League of Nations World Conference in 1927, work in the House of Lords as a life peer in 1958 and become Deputy Speaker there in 1965. She was the first Chair of the Countryside Commission, an early environmental campaigner and in the interwar period a prominent proponent of those ideas about federalism and world peace that led directly to the European Community. She became a magistrate at the age of 28 before as a woman she was eligible to vote, and in 44 years’ service on the bench she decided what to do with some 15,000 people who came before the courts accused of anti-social behaviour. It was this experience of being at the sharp end of the policy process that most convinced Barbara Wootton of the need for that guidance about effective interventions that can be derived from reliable evidence, and most opened her eyes to its absence. In two landmark reports – the Wootton report on cannabis in 1968 and on Non-Custodial and Semi-Custodial Penalties in 1970 – she applied her perceptive analytic gaze to drugs policy and the reform of the penal system. Community Service Orders as an alternative to prison were her invention, and one that she said she would claim as hers to St Peter when she got there.

Heaven was no part of her own vision, of course. What is perhaps most extraordinary about Barbara Wootton’s lifetime of service to public welfare is the tight interrelationship between rationalism, humanism and socialism in her philosophy of human action. Reason should be the arbiter of a just and fair society based on respect for the individual. It is unethical to distribute wealth unequally, to pursue social differentials in income, to tolerate poverty. Religious idolatry has no place in such a society. Interviewed for the humanist journal The Freethinker in her seventies, and asked which “ism” she preferred – agnosticism or atheism – she said she didn’t mind, but she supposed one ought to say agnostic since there is no proof either way as to the existence of the deity. She was renowned for her spirited engagement with those who held opposing views, challenging them on such matters as the presence of Christ in every human being – if that is the case, he does an excellent job of concealing himself in some of them, she objected, in a Rediffusion Television debate on religion arbitrated by Peter Snow in 1967.

In 1970, the British Humanist Association asked Barbara Wootton to deliver a course of lectures in memory of the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire. In these, published as Contemporary Britain, she argued that the decline in religion and the growing liberalisation of society had created an important vacuum: “What is needed to fill the vacuum is a moral system which accepts the fact that the only human experience of which we have certain knowledge is that which falls between birth and death; which invokes no supernatural sanction; and which derives its precepts from the importance of promoting happiness and welfare here on earth.”

Barbara Wootton’s own moral code was based on the ethics of Benthamite utilitarianism: the greatest happiness for the greatest number. This implied “a profound sense of the value of human life and of human personality” – a profounder sense than for the religious believer, who could always fall back on the phantasma of immortality. The Woottonian moral code was unrepentantly opposed to all forms of violence against human beings, whether this took the form of corporal punishment, the death penalty, motorised crime or war: there is an unassailable logic in her contention, spelt out in a piece called “When Is a War Not a War?”, published in New Society in 1981, that there is essentially no difference between killing in war and in “non-war hostilities”, guerrilla actions, terrorism and crime. Exceptionally wicked killings can occur in all these categories, as can mitigating circumstances. “Either life is sacred, or it is not,” she declared. “If it is, how can it be right to engage in indiscriminate slaughter, and yet a sin to put a merciful end to one who longs for death in the last stages of a lingering illness?” In the House of Lords, Barbara Wootton matched deed to word and introduced there the bill that finally abolished capital punishment; she tried to do the same with corporal punishment (“the only people who are apparently allowed to wield a cane in the exercise of their profession are prostitutes and teachers”), and in the last years of her life her Incurable Patients Bill followed other unsuccessful efforts to allow people the dignified exit of what she called “self-deliverance”.

Cover of A Critical WomanParadoxically, it was her firm conviction that life is sacred that earned her disfavour within the organised humanist movement. In the abortion law reform agitations of the 1960s, she did not support the notion of a woman’s right to choose. The foetus was a person, she said, and her or his right to life had to be respected precisely because there is no life after death, although termination of pregnancy should happen when the mother’s physical or mental health was in jeopardy. This, argued a number of humanists, was not toeing the party line. She was removed from her role as a Vice-President of the British Humanist Association and she parted from the Rationalist Press Association several years later, also over the abortion issue.

As a child, I met Barbara Wootton through my father who was a colleague of hers at the University of London. It was 50 years before I started to research and write her biography. It has been a difficult journey probing this extraordinary woman’s life, not least because she did not really want to be probed, and so she disposed of many personal papers. I wrote A Critical Woman because I was fascinated by the rational intelligence, egalitarian logic and moral passion that mark Barbara Wootton’s contribution to social science and public policy. She had no patience with theory for theory’s sake and she could not abide the game of party politics. For that reason, she never stood for Parliament. Her acceptance of the life peerage, having, like the good socialist she was, argued for the abolition of the House of Lords, was one of those contradictions that make people’s lives interesting. She said that in the House of Lords your speeches will always be reported, there is always civilised conversation to be had and you are guaranteed a parking place in central London (the first two of these may no longer be true).

Barbara Wootton’s unbroken record of achievement owes a good deal to the fact that she, unlike many women, was never much occupied with family ties. She largely rejected her own family and she never had children. After that first brief marriage, she waited 18 years before marrying a second time, a philandering golden-haired taxi-driver, who enjoyed being the world’s first male “peeress”.

She was a loner, ploughing furrows in ways and places that others did not. She was a woman, and thus vulnerable to the fate of all exceptional women – a kind of cultural amnesia: the human achievements of women are rarely regarded simply as such. She crossed boundaries and invaded the territories of experts – lawyers, psychiatrists, doctors, social workers, philosophers, economists – all of whom had every reason to be upset at her sagacious interrogation of their work.

Humanists today would do well to remember Barbara Wootton and to claim her as their own. Actually, in today’s morally and politically disheartening world, we could all do with a strong dose of the Wootton medicine: morality and science, passion and reason, respect for individual experience combined with a proper reverence for the lessons of cumulative and systematised knowledge. What is the point of sentencing criminals? Why is crime a masculine speciality? Why do some people earn more than others? Who defines the meaning of mental health? What is the best way to teach children, to use technology wisely, to protect the natural world? These were the kinds of questions she asked and tried to answer. She was a woman – a person – ahead of her time, critical in both senses of that word: both important and a source of acute commentary on many of those customs and arrangements that deeply affect all our lives.

A Critical Woman: Barbara Wootton, Social Science and Public Policy in the Twentieth Century by Ann Oakley is published by Bloomsbury Academic