The death penalty: Were we doing the right thing?

Albert Pierrepoint, the Bradford-born 'Chief Executioner' who presided as more than 400 prisoners went to the gallows. PIC: Peter Price/REX
Albert Pierrepoint, the Bradford-born 'Chief Executioner' who presided as more than 400 prisoners went to the gallows. PIC: Peter Price/REX
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TODAY is a red letter day for reformers.

It is exactly 50 years since this sovereign nation executed a criminal. Two went to the gallows that day – in Walton (Liverpool) and Strangeways (Manchester) jails – for the murder of a man in Cumberland three months earlier.

The big question is whether we did the right thing then – and whether the past half century has produced a better society.

Before weighing the arguments, a little history. The year 1964 marked the end of the English propensity to hang (and sometimes draw and quarter) anybody and everybody. At its peak “The Bloody Code”, as it was called, could send you to meet your Maker for any one of an array of 220 crimes, including “strong evidence of malice in a child aged seven to 14 years of age”. How did humanity survive?

We are told English law was “notorious for prescribing the death penalty for a vast range of offences as slight as the theft of goods valued at 12p”. Between 1770 and 1830, around 35,000 death sentences were handed down, though perhaps mercifully only about 7,000 were carried out.

The death penalty for theft was abolished in 1832. This was followed by a long campaign in Parliament to narrow the range of offences left carrying it after the reformers of 1832 had reduced the tally by two thirds. That abomination – the spectacle of public executions providing macabre entertainment for the masses – ceased in 1868.

But it was not until 1965 that Sydney Silverman, the Labour MP for Nelson and Colne, ended it for murder with an heroic Private Members’ Bill. And it took until 1998 to remove it completely from the tariff of sentences. Our adoption of a protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights in 2004 eventually put the tin hat on it, as it were: it ruled out its use.

While I am delving into history, I should acknowledge Yorkshire’s close association with these mortal affairs. The Bradford-born Albert Pierrepoint followed his father and uncle as the so-called Chief Executioner and in 15 
years presided over more than 400 hangings. On his retirement in 1958, the Home Office recognised him as the country’s most efficient executioner of all time.

Whether William Joyce, otherwise known as Lord Haw Haw, the wartime traitor, took the same view, I cannot say. Pierrepoint officiated at his demise for treason.

Incidentally, early in the Second World War, we Hebden Bridge folk found a reason why Lord Haw Haw should perhaps have been left to broadcast from Berlin. He once said we were starving because we were eating grass. In fact, we were eating dock pudding – the boiled leaves of the sweet dock, onions, nettles and oatmeal served fried with bacon.

Starving? It was the stuff to give the troops. In my neck of the woods, Lord Haw Haw became Lord Funny Ha Ha overnight.

But I digress. Society probably became less brutalised after 1964. There is a superficial appeal to the doctrine of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth and a life for a life. Margaret Thatcher certainly felt that the sanction should be available for murder.

But this does not take account of what it does to a country’s ethos, the demonstrable risk that mistakes can be made in trials or the singular lack of evidence that the death penalty acts as a deterrent for what are mostly crimes of passion. Pierrepoint came to the conclusion it didn’t.

After being regularly debated by MPs up to 1997, we can be pretty sure that it is not coming back, whether or not we leave the ECHR or the EU. It is true that a poll in 2011 found 65 per cent in favour of its reinstatement for murder. But a year later an on-line petition for a limited restoration for the murder of children and police officers fell nearly 75,000 short of the 100,000 signatories required to generate a debate in the House of Commons.

There is no public clamour for capital punishment. Yet, while we may not officially kill criminals any more, I cannot, with the best will in the world, accept that this sceptred isle has become morally more enlightened over the last 50 years. Greater prosperity, thanks largely to technology, cannot hide our descent into decadence.

On one measure alone youngsters face a far more challenging childhood from TV, films, IT, printed material, role models, celebrities, drugs and religious fanatics than I did when Pierrepoint was plying his gruesome trade. Let us not get too pious.