Swinging Sixties the Abolition of Capital Punishment: Liz Homans Looks Back over the Long Campaign to Remove the Death Penalty from the Statute Book. the Article Is an Edited Version of Her BA Dissertation, Which Was 'Highly Commended' by the Royal Historical Society/History Today Judges in January

By Homans, Liz | History Today, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Swinging Sixties the Abolition of Capital Punishment: Liz Homans Looks Back over the Long Campaign to Remove the Death Penalty from the Statute Book. the Article Is an Edited Version of Her BA Dissertation, Which Was 'Highly Commended' by the Royal Historical Society/History Today Judges in January


Homans, Liz, History Today


At 8 am on August 13th, 1964, Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans were hanged--Evans at Strangeways in Manchester, Allen at Walton Prison in Liverpool. They were the respective hangmen's last jobs. The following year Parliament voted to abolish the death penalty. This reform is often seen as emblematic of the 1960s, part of a shift towards a more 'permissive' society. However, the abolition of capital punishment did not reflect any sea change in public opinion, which remained firmly opposed to abolition. For abolitionists, the vote had nothing to do with any permissive society; it was the successful end of a long, long campaign.

From 1861 onwards only four crimes by civilians were still punishable by death in Britain: murder, treason, piracy with violence, and arson in government dockyards and arsenals. In practice murder was the only crime for which the death penalty was imposed. The judge had no choice but to pass a death sentence on a convicted murderer, reflecting the concept that 'every murderer forfeits his life because he has taken another's.' Because it was recognized that murders varied greatly and were viewed accordingly by public opinion, many murderers were reprieved by the Home Secretary exercising the royal prerogative of mercy. This state of affairs remained unchanged until 1957.

Capital punishment has always attracted controversy. Simply, the arguments for and against can be divided into four categories with a moral and a pragmatic argument on each side. The purpose of the death penalty is central to the debate. Punishment can be seen as serving three purposes: retribution, deterrence and reformation. The death penalty can have no reformative purpose in terms of re-establishing 'a good citizen'. Therefore, the case for it must rely on retribution and deterrence. The pragmatic justification for the death penalty sees it as a unique and effective deterrent, which therefore protects society.

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The moral argument against capital punishment holds that killing is unequivocally wrong. The murderer is wicked to kill, but so is the State. For some abolitionists this was the whole argument. Other abolitionists would not entirely reject the death penalty, if they thought that its deterrent effect could be proven and that there was no alternative equally effective punishment.

Parliamentary abolitionists were supported in their efforts by extra-parliamentary groups such as the Howard League for Penal Reform and the National Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty (NCADP), which had been established after the controversial execution of Edith Thompson in 1923 for the murder of her husband by her lover, though he denied her involvement and the arguments in favour of a reprieve were strong. The 1920s saw the development of a sophisticated and statistically backed argument for abolition that questioned the deterrent effect of the death penalty in the high proportion of cases where the murder was impulsive or where the murderer was 'mentally abnormal'. Abolitionists deployed statistics to show that the ending of capital punishment in other countries had not resulted in higher murder rates and emphasized the risk of an innocent person being hanged.

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Over the years, the NCADP evolved into the National Council for the Abolition of Capital Punishment (NCACP). It often worked alongside the Howard League, which undertook research, while the NCACP focused on propaganda and the dissemination of information. The NCACP made great use of reasoned arguments, but as one ex-member later put it, at the core lay the belief that the death penalty 'just wasn't on ... it was not for a civilized society'. Some in the NCACP were keen to use open meetings to raise public awareness, but their basic modus operandi is better described by the comment of one chairman that 'everything really depended on the MPs.' From the outset they dissociated themselves from tactics which risked linking the cause with any hint of 'hysterical emotionalism' and worked to create a respectable, non-partisan image. …

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Swinging Sixties the Abolition of Capital Punishment: Liz Homans Looks Back over the Long Campaign to Remove the Death Penalty from the Statute Book. the Article Is an Edited Version of Her BA Dissertation, Which Was 'Highly Commended' by the Royal Historical Society/History Today Judges in January
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