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

Article excerpt

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.


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.


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. When it was suggested in 1961 that Adam Faith, 'or an equivalent representative of his generation', be invited to speak at a meeting, several members argued that his involvement 'would detract from the apparent responsibility of the movement'. In the 1960s, the Committee of Honour included Harold Wilson and several other MPs, religious leaders and other notables, such as Karl Popper and Henry Moore. The backbench Labour MP Sydney Silverman was the undisputed leader of the parliamentary campaign after the 1940s and sat on the Executive Committee of the NCACP, as did Jeremy Thorpe, who became leader of the Liberal Party in 1967, and Julian Critchley, the prominent Conservative MP. Gerald Gardiner, a pacifist and leading member of the Bar, and the publisher Victor Gollancz chaired the organization.

The debate had simmered on during the 1920s and 1930s, hut came off the boil during the Second World War. After 1945 the abolitionists had high hopes of the new Labour Government under Clement Attlee, but public support had fallen since the 1930s, when one poll recorded forty per cent as being in favour of abolition. Some historians have attributed this, in part, to the experience of war; they argue that it bad encouraged people to view the world in moral terms--'good' and 'bad'--thus strengthening notions of retributory justice. (The hangings of war criminals after the Nuremberg trials were entirely retributory.) More important, perhaps, was growing concern about crime. The press began to carry stories about 'the senseless violence of juvenile gangs' and even the proabolition Lord Templewood (the former foreign minister Sir Samuel Hoare) expressed the view that 'moral restraints have lost much of their power in the confused and restless world of today'. The Labour Government argued that the death penalty was an effective deterrent, that public opinion opposed abolition and that the 'unsettled post-war environment' made it an unsuitable time for experimentation. In 1947 an abolitionist amendment to a Criminal Justice Bill introduced by Silverman was carried in the Commons on a free vote. Rather embarrassingly, the bulk of the support for Silverman's amendment came from Labour MPs, while the bulk of the Government's support came from the Conservatives. The Lords rejected the abolitionist sections of the Bill and so the law remained unchanged. However, to take the heat out of the controversy, the home secretary Chuter Ede, who later became a staunch abolitionist, announced the setting up of a Royal Commission to examine the whole subject.


By the time the Royal Commission reported in 1953, the Conservatives were back in office. It had discovered no convincing evidence that the death penalty was an effective deterrent to murder. Moreover, it saw no satisfactory way of modifying the law so as to confine the death penalty just to the 'more heinous' murders. The implication was that the law could not be satisfactorily amended and should be abolished. In the debate on the Royal Commission's report in February 1955, Silverman's abolitionist amendment to the motion that the House 'take note' of the report was rejected on a free vote. The 1951 general election swing to the Conservatives had altered the balance of views in the Commons on the issue.

The general election later in 1955 further increased the Conservative majority, but it also brought in new younger members favourable to abolition. Some Conservatives, like Enoch Powell, simply disagreed with capital punishment. More broadly, the increase in the number of Tory abolitionists reflected wider changes in the party. 'Right Progressives' tended to view the demands for hanging and flogging among the 'backward sections' of their party as 'the only outward and visible signs of inward yet often inarticulate concern over the problems of crime and punishment as a whole', as Powell put it in a book published in 1969. However, despite the abolitionist majority in the Commons, the Lords remained opposed, as did the Conservative Government itself. Silverman and his allies, though, still took every opportunity to further their cause. They were helped by a string of controversial cases where, for one reason or another, it was felt that the individual should not have been hanged.


Aiming to seize the initiative from the abolitionists, the Government introduced (and whipped though both Houses) what became the 1957 Homicide Act. It represented an uncomfortable compromise, introducing the new concepts of capital and non-capital murder. Only five types of murder still demanded the death penalty: those which 'struck at the roots of law and order and in which its deterrent effect was most likely to operate'. These five were: murder in the course of theft; murder in the course of resisting arrest or escaping from legal custody; murder of a police officer; murder by shooting or causing an explosion; and second murders. A Home Office report recognized, though, that this failed to reflect any generally felt sense of justice:

   The ordinary person judges the
   culpability of a murderer more by
   the heinousness of his crime than
   by the method of killing which he
   employed; but the Government
   recognised in the framing of the
   Homicide Act that there is--as the
   Royal Commission ... pointed out--no
   means of defining capital
   murder in a way that reflects this

The 1957 Act marked a decisive moment in the history of abolition. In effect, it signalled that the death penalty had no place as a retributory punishment. Moreover, it clearly demonstrated, to those who would have favoured such a solution, the practical difficulties in limiting the use of the death penalty to some murders only. Retentionists and abolitionists alike were offended at the anomalies that the Act had created. For example, murder after rape was not punishable by death if the victim was stabbed to death, but was if a gun was used.

The Government soon recognized that the Act was unsound but made no move to alter it. Even had it been politically possible, Home Office reports argued that there was little justification (based on the deterrence argument) for returning to the pre-1957 situation. On the other hand, public opinion made any move towards complete abolition difficult, especially for a Conservative government, because the majority of the party remained firmly and vocally opposed.

It is possible that the Homicide Act's demonstrable failings would eventually have forced even a Conservative Government to accept abolition. In September 1964, the prime minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, was told by the home secretary, Henry Brooke, that 'the Homicide Act is unworkable in its present form and the next Home Secretary, of whatever party, will have to end the death penalty'. The following month Harold Wilson formed a Labour government, the first to support abolition. The Government announced that special facilities and free votes at all stages would be provided for a Private Member's Bill introduced by Silverman. On the ITV programme This Week Wilson had said that, with a Labour majority, he knew what the outcome of a free vote would be.

Other changes also encouraged the abolitionists. Both the judiciary and the Church of England, as represented in the House of Lords, were on their side. Some judges had long inclined towards abolition, partly because for them passing a death sentence could be a terrible experience. By 1965, under the leadership of Lord Chief Justice Parker, all opposition to abolition had disappeared. Lord Parker was not morally opposed to the death penalty, but he was disgusted by the 'absurdities' produced by the Homicide Act. From the late 1940s church leaders had increasingly inclined towards abolition. In 1961 the progressively inclined Michael Ramsey became Archbishop of Canterbury. He considered the 1957 Act to be 'morally shocking'. Abolitionists were given a further boost by Wilson's appointment of Gardiner as Lord Chancellor. They now had a powerful spokesman in the Lords.


However, abolitionists could not argue that public opinion was moving in their direction. In the 1930s public support for abolition had been as high as forty per cent but by the time that the death penalty was suspended in 1965 that figure was as low as twenty-three per cent and it was to fall still further. In 1969 one commentator remarked that 'over seventy per cent ... clearly didn't find the 1960s, in one sense, swinging enough'. Certainly, notions of retributive justice loomed large in the public mind. However deterrence appeared to play an equal, if not more, important part in many people's thinking. Before abolition, a majority expressed concern that it would lead to an increased murder rate. After abolition a (smaller) majority wrongly thought that the murder rate had increased. A recurring theme was that a life sentence was an insufficient substitute for the death penalty.

The two most widely read daily newspapers at the time were the Daily Express and the Daily Mirror. The Express came out in favour of keeping capital punishment, playing heavily on the fact that the majority of the population supported it in some form; the Mirror adopted a mildly abolitionist stance. As the Parliamentary battles were heating up in December 1964, the Express ran a front page headline HANGING DRAMA over a story reporting how Ronald Cooper, sentenced to death for murder with a firearm, 'smiled ... as the black cap of death was placed on the judge's head' because he was almost certain he would not actually be hanged. Just after Christmas the Express declared MURDER WEEKEND. Apparently it had been 'the most violent holiday in London for years', ending as it had begun 'with a killing'. Referring to the recent debates in Parliament, the Express observed that 'there have been four murders in six days. That for what the statistics are worth ... is twice the average before abolition.' By New Year's Eve the Mirror was also asking, 'Shootings, Stabbings, Clubbings ... How can we stop this violence on our streets?'

People's fears about a rising murder rate were not unjustified, but they led to an increase in the level of public support for the death penalty. It seemed 'common sense' that no penalty is worse than death; so the idea that retaining the death penalty, in some form, deterred people from murder also had a 'common sense' ring to it. However, fears about declining moral standards and rising violent crime were not new to the 1960s and abolitionist MPs took the view that public opinion was not based on a careful evaluation of the facts, which was the duty of Parliament. Rather contrarily, some also claimed that the issue was one of individual conscience and that, therefore, they should have the courage to speak out for their beliefs.


One of the most notable speeches in the 1964 Parliamentary debates was made by the ex-Conservative home secretary, Henry Brooke. Like Lord Parker, he did not believe 'the taking of life by the State' to be 'contrary to moral principle'; but, drawing upon his experience, he said that in his view there was no evidence 'showing the death penalty to be a unique and effective deterrent'. For Brooke, 'the taking of life is so grave a matter that the onus of proof must be on those who very sincerely believed the death penalty should be retained.' In the crucial Commons vote at the end of the Second Reading debate on Silverman's Bill, one Labour MP voted against; eighty Conservatives voted in favour. The further stages of the Bill's progress through the Commons were held up for some time, partly reflecting a rearguard action by convinced retentionists but also as a parliamentary ploy to clog up the Government's legislative timetable. Eventually the Bill reached the Lords and became law on November 8th, 1965. It was not the final end of the death penalty, though, because Brooke had successfully introduced an amendment to the Bill under which the Act would expire in July 1970 unless both Houses voted again for abolition.

Public support for abolition was further eroded in August 1966 when three policemen were shot dead at Shepherds Bush in West London. When the Home Secretary Roy Jenkins visited the scene some women screamed at him to 'Bring back the rope!' and the Police Federation called for the return of hanging for the crime of murdering a policeman. Polls at that time recorded over eighty per cent support for some use of the death penalty. It is unclear how closely the public linked the emergence of the 'permissive' society (always a vague concept) with the abolition of capital punishment. Some historians have noted a perceived link by the mid-1960s between morality and criminality, particularly in relation to the 'Moors Murders' (a series of five murders by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley between 1963 and 1965 of young people abducted by them in Manchester). It was noted that Brady and Hindley owned several 'sadistic and pornographic books'. In 1967 PameLa Hansford Johnson (Lady Snow) published a book, On Iniquity, arguing that the murderers and their crimes were the product of a permissive society under less restraint from censorship and with fewer self-imposed constraints upon behaviour. Most historians dispute this argument, but for moral and political conservatives the growth of obscenity and increasing crime appeared to be two sides of the same coin. It does seem that public support for capital punishment grew because of the perception that society was changing--and changing for the worse.

At a local level, capital punishment became an issue in the 1966 general election. In Sydney Silverman's own Lancashire constituency of Nelson and Colne, the uncle of one of the Moors Murderers' victims stood against him as an Independent candidate solely on the hanging issue. An emotional highpoint was reached when the father arrived to help his brother with door-to-door campaigning. In what one Conservative abolitionist described as 'the most melancholy [result] in the campaign', the Independent candidate won more than thirteen per cent of the vote. Despite this, Silverman actually increased his majority. In the previous year he had been asked what had started him on his campaign. He replied that he could no longer remember, but that one case had 'impressed him as an outstanding example of the absurdity of capital punishment': a young man had shot and killed his 'girl' before turning the gun on himself. He only managed to destroy one of his own eyes. The man was then nursed in hospital and fitted with an artificial eye, only to be taken to jail and hanged. Silverman remarked: 'I couldn't square this with any notion of a civilized society.'

In 1969 the Conservative Party's annual conference voted by 1,117 votes to 958 for the restoration of full capital punishment, but the Conservative leader, Edward Heath, refused to commit the party to such a policy. His own views on capital punishment were apparently influenced by a wartime experience when he had had to organize the execution of a soldier found guilty of rape and murder.

At the beginning of that year discussions began about making abolition permanent. One MP warned that leaving this again to a Private Member's Bill would be a 'grave error' and 'totally unacceptable.' The Home Office also advised the Government to take the lead. There was some pressure in favour of completing the 'five year experiment', particularly from the Conservatives, but this conflicted with the concern to deal with the matter promptly to prevent it again becoming an issue in the next general election. When, on December 8th, 1969, it was announced that Parliament would be asked to make a decision before Christmas, the newspapers reported a 'political storm'. The Labour home secretary, James Callaghan, said he would rather resign than order any executions. Senior Conservatives were said to be 'unanimous' in their condemnation of the Government's 'rushing tactics' and some were genuinely concerned about the perceived effects of abolition. Many, however, were happy just to make the most of the Government's unpopular decision.


A Conservative censure motion 'deploring the Government's actions in bringing the subject forward for decision before the statistics for murder rates in 1969 were available' was defeated on a whipped vote. The following day, the debate on abolition took place with a free vote. After three days of debate, both Houses voted in favour of abolition. All three party leaders voted in favour. The death penalty would not be completely removed from the statute books for another twenty-nine years (the 1969 Bill was only concerned with murder), but to all intents and purposes abolition had been achieved. In an editorial, the Daily Mirror acknowledged that public sentiment was against. However, it welcomed abolition thus:

   It must always be the duty of Parliament
   to lead if there is ever to
   be any progress in penal reform.
   The lead has been given. It is clear
   cut. It is humane. This agonising
   controversy can now be buried
   with the hangman's noose.

Further Reading

B.P. Block and J. Hostertler, Hanging in the Balance (Waterside Press, 1997); V. Bailey, 'The Shadow of the Gallows: The Death Penalty and the British Labour Movement' in Law and History Review (Summer, 2000); J.B. Christoph, Capital Punishment and British Politics (Allan & Unwin, 1962); C. Davies, Permissive Britain (Pitman, 1975); P.G. Richards, Parliament and Conscience (Allan & Unwin, 1970); M. Donnelly, Sixties Britain (Longman, 2005); D. Sandbrook, White Heat (Abacus, 2006).

Liz Homans is a postgraduate student at Bangor University.


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