Fifty years after the abolition of the death penalty in Britain, Dani Garavelli asks what brought about its demise and why fewer people now mourn its passing
‘Of all the House of Commons’ personalities, the most irritating is perhaps Mr Sydney Silverman,” wrote fellow Labour MP Joseph Mallalieu in the New Statesman in 1956. He went on to catalogue Silverman’s many perceived faults: his cockiness, his preoccupation with his own shortness, his outré manner and his habit of arguing the toss over some technical point long after everyone else had got bored, before adding: “But the most irritating thing about him is that, far more often than not, he is proved right.”
Silverman – the son of a Jewish draper, who was later suspended from the Labour whip for his stance on nuclear weapons – was a paid-up member of “the awkward squad”. According to another colleague, Richard Crossman, he was “vain, difficult and uncooperative. All his life he remained an individualist back-bencher.” But when Silverman believed in a cause, he wouldn’t let go. And he believed in the campaign to end capital punishment.
It took him almost two decades, but Silverman achieved his goal. On 8 November, 1965, his bill to abolish the death penalty for everything but treason or piracy received Royal Assent, albeit with a sunset clause that said the act would expire in 1970, unless parliament took action in the interim). Parliament did take action, and the decision was cemented by a large majority in 1969.
By the time Silverman’s Bill became law – 50 years ago today – public opinion had shifted slightly on the death penalty. Several high-profile hangings – Timothy Evans, Derek Bentley and Ruth Ellis – had prompted disquiet over the potential injustice of the system and several high-profile figures, including Arthur Koestler, publisher and humanitarian Victor Gollancz and Anglican canon John Collins, had lent their considerable moral authority to the campaign.
Even so, the decision was contentious and remained so for several decades. Most ordinary people continued to see hanging as the most effective deterrent to serious crime. They had no interest in the ethical qualms of intellectuals and the arrest of Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, just four weeks after the act came into force, simply hardened their position.
Now, however, the clamour for the death penalty to be reinstated in the UK has weakened. A poll earlier this year put support at less than 50 per cent for the first time, and, in 2011, when right-wing blogger Paul Staines – aka Guido Fawkes – started an e-petition calling for the restoration of hanging for those who kill children or police officers, he fell far short of garnering the 100,000 signatures needed to spark a parliamentary debate. While high-profile cases, such as the murder of the Soham schoolgirls, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, cause a short-term spike in support for capital punishment, there is no sustained appetite for its return.
The campaign to abolish the death penalty in the UK didn’t really start gaining momentum until after the Second World War, but there were pockets of resistance as far back as the early 19th century. In those days, there were more than 200 separately defined capital crimes and 1,000 people were being sentenced to death every year. Though only a small proportion of the executions were carried out, liberal MPs were concerned people could still hang for offences such as shoplifting and forgery. One of the key campaigners was Sir James Mackintosh, a Scottish polymath and Whig MP. In 1819, he persuaded the government to set up a committee to look at capital punishment and campaigned, with some success, to decrease the number of crimes for which hanging was judged a fitting penalty.
Other reformers were more preoccupied with ending the barbaric practice of public executions which were still regarded as great family days out by rich and poor alike. In a letter to the Times in 1849, Charles Dickens issued a literary telling off to the gleeful crowds who poured in to witness the hangings of Frederick and Marie Manning – a married couple convicted of the murder of Marie’s lover in a case that became known as the Bermondsey Horror. “I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun,” he wrote, the sparks flying angrily from his pen.
The last public execution in the UK took place 19 years later. Michael Barrett, a Fenian, who killed 12 bystanders in a bomb attack, was hanged outside the walls of Newgate Prison in May 1868, as a 2,000-strong crowd booed, jeered and sang Rule Britannia and Champagne Charlie.
By then, there was only one crime for which people were put to death in peacetime – murder – and the issue of capital punishment faded from the public eye. In 1925, however, the newly-formed National Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty put it back on the agenda and, in the mid-1930s, the flamboyant Violet Van der Elst decided to use her wealth and status to keep it there. For years, the rags-to-riches entrepreneur – who made her money from developing a range of cosmetics – would pitch up outside a prison in her Rolls-Royce on the day of an execution, and whip up a great protest. When Leonard Brigstock was hanged at Wandsworth Prison in 1935, vans drove up and down the street playing Abide With Me through a loudhailer, while dozens of men wore sandwich boards and, in the sky above, three aeroplanes trailed banners which read: “Stop the Death Sentence.” Van der Elst’s dedication to the cause, and her unsuccessful attempts to get elected to parliament, ate into her fortune and she died in a nursing home in 1966, five months after capital punishment was abolished.
After the Second World War, society became less structured and hierarchical; class boundaries began to dissolve, and human rights were being enshrined in national and international constitutions. Enter Sydney Silverman. Silverman – with his distinctive quiff – was a maverick who would go on to form the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament with several other mavericks, including Michael Foot. In 1948, he persuaded the House of Commons to agree to a five-year suspension of the death penalty; there were 28 reprieves and no executions between March and October, when the Lords overturned it.
Silverman’s efforts were not entirely wasted though. The government set up a Royal Commission to look at all aspects of capital punishment and, over the next few years, leading cultural figures began to campaign vigorously, with Arthur Koestler’s Reflections On Hanging serialised over five weeks in the Observer.
While their rhetoric influenced the great and the good, court cases had more impact on grassroots views. First, in early 1963, 19-year-old Derek Bentley went to the gallows for the killing of PC Sidney Miles during a thwarted robbery in Croydon. Bentley was unarmed and already under arrest at the time his young accomplice, Christopher Craig, fired the fatal shot. But, at 16, Craig was too young to hang. They were both convicted of murder and Bentley was executed because, according to campaigners, someone had to be seen to pay for the death of a police officer.
Months later came the revelation that serial killer John Christie had almost certainly carried out the crime for which Timothy Evans had been hanged in 1950. The execution of this man – falsely accused of murdering his wife and daughter – was one of the gravest miscarriages of the justice the country ever experienced. But it was perhaps the execution of Ruth Ellis – the last woman to be hanged in the UK – that created the greatest backlash. Ellis had shot her abusive lover, David Blakely, several times at close range and the crime was premeditated, so the jury had no choice but to find her guilty of murder. But other murderers convicted around the same time – including a woman who killed her 86-year-old neighbour with a shovel – were granted reprieves and she was not. Ellis was attractive, was the mother of two small children and had suffered a miscarriage after Blakely punched her, so the case elicited much sympathy and highlighted the arbitrariness of the system.
In 1956, Silverman introduced another private member’s bill, which was also passed by the Commons and overturned by the Lords. The Homicide Act 1957 put further restrictions on the death penalty, so the number of executions had already decreased before the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act of 1965 abolished the death penalty for good.
The last person to be hanged in Scotland was Henry Burnett, who shot his partner’s estranged husband after she threatened to return to him. Three hundred people gathered outside Craiginches Prison in Aberdeen on the day of the execution, 15 August, 1963. The last people to be hanged in the UK were Gwynne Evans and Peter Allen, who murdered John West while robbing him at his home in Cumberland in 1964. They were executed on 13 August of that year.
The arguments put forward by opponents of the death penalty were two-fold: they believed it ran counter to human rights but also that it was an ineffective means of preventing further killings. After he retired, the famous hangman, Albert Pierrepoint, who executed both Bentley and Ellis, seemed to agree. “I do not now believe that any one of the hundreds of executions I carried out has in any way acted as a deterrent against future murder,” he said.
After the abolition of the death penalty, the murder rate rose (those who backed the 2011 e-petition said it had doubled) but it is difficult to draw any definitive conclusions from the available figures. After the death penalty was abolished, the statistics for murder, manslaughter and infanticide were all lumped together as homicide, and, in any case, correlation does not imply causation.
Though some countries still cleave to it, capital punishment is now on the wane internationally. Of the 193 states recognised by the United Nations, only 37 still execute criminals. The US is one of only two developed democracies to use the death penalty (the other is Japan). Though 32 states still have it on their statute books – and there are 3,000 prisoners on death row – only six states have actually carried out executions this year. Of a total of 25, all by lethal injection, 11 were in Texas.
The drop in the number of executions has more to do with the shortage of sodium thiopental – one of the three drugs required for the lethal injections – than any great cultural change. The shortage has been caused by a Europe-led embargo and has seen the system fall into disarray, with abolitionists striking while the iron is hot.
Earlier this year, Justice Stephen Breyer suggested the Supreme Court should be asked to rule on whether the death penalty breached the eighth amendment, but campaigners are split on whether heading to the Supreme Court is the best course of action, given that a ruling in favour of the death penalty could see it entrenched for years. Some would prefer to keep chipping away at public opinion and campaign on a state-by-state basis.
Six states have got rid of the death penalty since 2007. Add to that the fact that two of the three candidates for the Democrat nomination vocally oppose capital punishment (Hillary Clinton wants to keep it, but only for the most egregious cases) and it seems possible the mood is beginning to soften.
Half a century after the UK made its landmark decision on capital punishment, could the US finally be ready to at least consider following suit and scrapping what Pierrepoint referred to as “an antiquated relic of a primitive desire for revenge”? «