British rope trick

Although it struck panic into the abolitionists, the recent debate and free vote on the issue of capital punishment was part of an established tradition; every new parliament tries to discuss and decide the matter in its first session. The new Home Secretary Leon Brittan quickly declared his intention of arranging a debate — some said in order to avoid the pressure to reintroduce hanging from the enthusiasts at the Tory conference in the autumn and which some new Conservative MPs might find difficult to resist. There was also a nasty rumour that those same MPs might want to get into favour with Margaret Thatcher, who favours capital punishment, but our elected representatives would never behave in such a craven, dishonest way, would they? At any event, the hangers are not likely to have a better chance to restore the gallows to British gaols.

The exact origins of capital punishment — the putting to death by the state of people who in particular ways transgress its laws — are hard to discover. The earliest recorded example was the “blood for blood” law of BC2343, whereas the ancient Greeks were the first to use courts to try suspected murderers in BC1178. In Britain social conformity was sometimes enforced by drowning dissenters in quagmires (which even the Tories don’t seem yet to favour) but regulated capital punishment did not appear until the time of the Romans.

Throughout British history the number of crimes which might result in being put to death has varied widely. Ethelbert I of Kent, on the grounds that killing men deprived him of an army, abolished capital punishment (women were considered dispensable and so were drowned if they fell foul of the law). William I banned executions as he considered that mutilation was a more effective penalty. William Rufus reintroduced the death penalty to protect the royal deer from unauthorised hunters and from then the number of capital crimes grew steadily: by the fifteenth century virtually every prison contained a gallows and public executions were an accepted form of popular entertainment (P.N. Walker, Punishment, An Illustrated History, David and Charles, 1972).

By the early nineteenth century the number of capital offences had risen to 220 and offenders could be strung up for such heinous crimes as causing damage to Westminster Bridge, appearing disguised on a public road and shooting rabbits (C. Duff, A Handbook on Hanging, Journeyman Press, 1981). The response to this was that juries commonly refused to convict; with law and order in such disrepute, the Tory government of the time were forced to decapitalise many offences. The same motives were behind the decision to abolish public hangings in 1868, as it was felt that the deterrent value of such a ritual was dwarfed by the risk to public order as crowds at a public hanging could often be induced to riot.

As the nineteenth century wore on the number of capital offences fell steadily from its all-time peak of 220 to four in 1861, where it remained until the twentieth century. There was a persistent campaign for abolition, until in 1956 the House of Commons passed Labour MP Sidney Silverman’s Bill which would have ended capital punishment. The Bill was rejected by the Lords, leading to the compromise of the 1957 Homicide Act which made a distinction between capital and non-capital murders, in much the same way as some MPs now want to reintroduce hanging for some types of murder. However, differential sentences caused many anomalies, which led to the death penalty being finally abolished in 1965, a situation which survived with none of the major capitalist parties being prepared to risk making a manifesto declaration on the issue.

There can be no doubt that an execution is a hideous ritual; the governor of San Quentin Prison, in California, describes a hanging thus:

   The day before an execution the prisoner goes through a harrowing experience of being weighed, measured the length of drop to ensure breaking of the neck, size of the neck, body measurements etc.
When the trap springs he dangles at the end of the rope. There are times when the neck has not been broken and the prisoner strangles to death. His eyes pop almost out of his head, his tongue swells and protrudes from his mouth. . . The prisoner remains dangling from the end of the rope for from eight to fourteen minutes before the doctor pronounces him dead. (Guardian 4 July 1983).

This barbarity is the result of nine hundred years of improvements in the techniques of hanging, from its origins as a form of execution designed to be extremely painful and degrading for the lower orders (noblemen enjoyed the dubious privilege of a private beheading, considered to be a more honourable way to die). Hanging is now justified as the most humane possible method of execution (Gowers Commission, Conclusion, paras 62-3) and various reasons are given to support the view that its return would civilise society.

The first is that a person who is unlawfully killed must be avenged. This “eye for an eye” concept of justice does not mean, however, that everyone who kills will be executed; a serviceman is a hero if he kills in uniform in the Falklands but a vicious thug if he does it in civilian clothes in Britain. There will be no calls at the Tory conference for the execution of Margaret Thatcher in revenge for her part in sending British workers to kill, and to be killed, in the South Atlantic. The food producers who destroy vast quantities of produce to preserve their profits while millions are dying of starvation will not be strung up. In capitalist society killing in pursuit of profit is an accepted norm and the people who perpetrate it enjoy a great deal of social esteem.

Execution for revenge is a backwards-orientated punishment; it cannot benefit the original victim in any way, even if it gives some ghoulish thrill of satisfaction to some survivors. There is another drawback to this irreversible act of revenge: since hanging was abolished in 1965 six men have been pardoned after being found guilty of what at one time would have been capital crimes (Guardian 4 July 1983). Of course there is always the chance of rehabilitation after death and the admission that it was all a terrible mistake; as in the famous case of Timothy Evans, the remains may be moved to consecrated ground, presumably on the argument that in some way this makes full amends.

The most popular argument for the death penalty is that it acts as a deterrent. (This is even popular with many criminals: the Guardian of 7 July published a letter from a lifer in Parkhurst arguing the deterrent case.) In fact, of course, every execution shows that the deterrent has failed. The belief stretches back as far as 1810 when Lord Ellenborough declared that removing the death penalty for stealing five shillings would lead to an epidemic of crime (C. Duff, op cit). The invalidity of the deterrent argument is illustrated by the facts, which speak inconveniently for the hysterical hangers. Over 80 per cent of murders are spontaneous (Patterns of Murder, Vigil of the Observer) and would not have been prevented by a fear of the consequences. European homicide figures around the time that the death penalty was abolished show that in no country was the ending of execution followed by a rise in homicide (Duff op cit).

Some elements of the pro-hanging lobby say they would be satisfied with a return to the post-1957 situation, which they argue would reverse what they see as a frightening rise in violent crime and “terrorism”. In fact the rise in murder in connection with crimes for gain was established while it was still a capital offence and slowed down in the 1970s when it was not (Guardian 4 July 1983). It is also false to suggest that the death penalty would deter “political murderers” like the IRA (who kill British troops rather than vice versa). This argument takes no account of the hunger strikes of 1981; if “terrorists” are prepared to starve themselves to death for a political point and martyrdom it is hardly likely that a British rope, and even greater martyrdom, will be a deterrent.

What then would be the effect of a return to capital punishment? Enough meticulously organised killing to satisfy the most blood-lusting. One estimate (published in the Guardian. 4 July 1983) was that it would mean an average of one execution a week, or over one a month if the post-1957 situation were to obtain. There is no evidence to suggest that it would have any effect on the murder rate, for a murder — or indeed any crime — is not an isolated event caused by some failing or evil in its perpetrator. To understand a criminal act — or rather an act defined as criminal by the law — it is necessary to see it in relation to the social system which allows a secure and abundant life to a small minority of people and condemns the majority to a life of sub-standard housing, food and services and to unfulfilling jobs or unemployment. The working class generally see their inevitable frustrations as the faults of their neighbours or workmates or families or some other religious, racial or political group. It is no surprise that since the turn of the century Royal Commissions have viewed murder as mainly an incident in some miserable lives rather than as the preserve of the “criminal classes” (Patterns of Murder, op cit).

Neither the reintroduction of capital punishment, nor its continued absence from the options available to courts, will lead to a murder-free society. Crime has roots in the social relationships of this system and will pass when this society is ended. The argument about hanging is imbued with, and distorted by, a morass of emotion. In its proper context, we should see that in innumerable ways, all the time, capitalism kills; it is a social system unfit for human habitation.

John Critchfield