On the 50th anniversary of the de facto abolition of the death penalty in the UK, PRI’s Oliver Robertson says that while the path to abolition has varied from country to country, the UK’s swift conversion of a moratorium to abolition in five years may have lessons for some states today.
This week marks 50 years since the effective abolition of the death penalty in the UK, and there have been events, publications and programmes commemorating it. Radio programmes both long and short (starting at 21.18) have been made, as well as on related issues such as the experiences of Britain’s chief executioner.
A comprehensive analysis of the death penalty in the UK has been published by the Death Penalty Project, and it was launched at an event with Louis Blom-Cooper (who was involved in the successful efforts to abolish in 1965) and Julian Knowles (who wasn’t, but who wrote the paper). The paper details the history of the death penalty in the UK over the last 1,200 years, covering the reduction in capital offences and moves away from public hangings in the 19th century, to the commissions, laws and three controversial executions that led to the suspension of the death penalty for murder on 9 November 1965. The decision was made on a free vote, where MPs could act as their consciences led, rather than having to follow party policy: it was won by persuading MPs as individuals, rather than changing the government’s mind.
The vote didn’t abolish the death penalty in law in the UK: that happened over three decades later in 1998. It didn’t even abolish the death penalty for murder (the only remaining peacetime capital offence): that happened in 1969. It only suspended the death penalty for murder for a period of five years. But – and this is an important lesson for those hoping to repeat in other countries the UK’s path to abolition – the moratorium was relatively quickly made permanent and translated into full peacetime abolition. There are several countries today where moratoriums have been in place for years or decades, with no sign that authorities are willing to summon the courage to take the next step. Among the factors that persuaded the government to itself introduce a Bill to permanently remove the death penalty was that government ministers were uncomfortable with having to again decide on executions (appeals for mercy were decided by the Home Secretary), as well as an awareness of the flaws of the previous law. Moreover, by the early 1960s, the number of executions had slowed to a trickle: just two each in 1962, 1963 and 1964. As put by the Home Secretary in 1969: ‘It is simply not credible that the structure of law and order should depend upon the execution of two criminals a year’. Countries in this position today may consider the actual effect of executions on the stability of their society.
Any analysis of the paths to abolition taken by different states shows that each country finds its own way away from the death penalty, whether the decisive step is taken by government, parliament, judiciary or the public. The principle forums for abolition depend very much on the traditions and political culture of the country, and sometimes the intermediate step of a moratorium may not be needed. But where a moratorium does exist, it is important to ensure that progress continues and that the suspension is a pause to breathe before continuing on to the final stretch, not a crossroads from which a state might turn back.