Celebrate 50 years free of the death penalty

Celebrate 50 years without the death penalty

This week marks half a century since the last executions in England. 

Around the world, the death penalty has been reduced to a minority practice. Only 58 countries mow use capital punishment. Asia is its last redoubt, where ninety per cent of executions take place there.  It may well be connected that the continent in which democracy is least prevalent is where execution is most common. Many new democracies created in the last 50 years abolished the death penalty when they threw off the yokes of military dictatorship, communism or apartheid.

Killing countries still include, unfortunately, the most populous: China, India, USA (although in small numbers outside Texas) and Indonesia. It may be that very large countries are at risk of human remoteness between the ruled and the ruling, making it easier for execution to continue.

We should be proud of 50 years without executions. The House of Commons voted to scrap it, on a free vote, by more than 2 to 1. The Lords overturned a narrower Commons vote for abolition after World War 2. In every Parliament until 1997 a motion was laid to restore the death penalty and always defeated. The 1997-2001 Parliament abolished the theoretical remaining death penalties for treason and piracy.

Roy Jenkins was crucial as Home Secretary in securing abolition. The Liberal government in 1908 abolished the death penalty for juveniles. Lloyd George’s coalition changed the law in 1922 to make it less likely the mothers who killed their babies would be executed- an early recognition of mental health issues.

There are 4 reasons why we should be proud to have buried the death penalty:

  1. Killing people is wrong. The state should not kill people and does not need to except in war.  The state should set a higher example.


  2. The practical reality is that the death penalty kills innocent people. We require a high standard of proof before convicting someone (“certain so you’re sure” is the formulation now given to juries) but many have been executed who have been later shown to be wrongly convicted. In 50 years, abolition has saved the lives of scores of defendants whose convictions have later been shown unsafe – sometimes connected to misbehaviour by the state (e.g. hiding exonerating material) or because of new technology such as DNA.   


  3. Pragmatically, the death penalty would worsen some criminality. Once you create a Rubicon of capital offences and a criminal has crossed it he has little incentive to stop. There is certainly no good evidence that capital punishment deters murder more effectively than a life sentence does.


  4. The final reason will only apply if you hold to a belief, held by many religions and also by many humanists, that all human life has value and that human beings have capacity to change and be better tomorrow than they were yesterday. That may be faith rather than evidence-based but it is an idea that has often inspired the greatest, most audacious changes in history and we dare not abandon it.

Supporters of killing often say “how would you feel if your family was murdered.” They have a point.  I would want to kill the perpetrators.  But just because it is what I would want to, does not make it the right thing to do.

In the words of Aeschylus, famously quoted by Robert Kennedy in his public appeal for calm after the murder of Martin Luther King, “let us tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”


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