By Matthew Barrett
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The debate over the death penalty is the classic public/political class divide. The public has backed the death penalty ever since it was abolished, while the political class has been against it for decades.
Why? It's hard to tell. The paradox within the public/political divide is that in general, working class Britons support the death penalty far more than do the middle classes, yet the only party which stood up for the death penalty in any meaningful way was the Conservative Party until the 1990s. Labour have been against it (as the Lib Dems have) for much of that party's history, despite most constituents in many Labour seats backing it. Ditto, historically the Tories defied their middle class constituents to vote in support of the death penalty.
The penalty was abolished under the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965. While this is a terribly official-sounding piece of legislation, it wasn't a grand government Bill. It was passed as a Private Members' Bill by the Labour MP Sydney Silverman. Silverman was an interesting figure on the hard-left of British politics. He refused to fight in the First World War on socialist grounds, he co-founded the CND, and was opposed to European rearmament after the Second World War. This latter cause meant he was expelled from the Labour Party twice during the 1950s and '60s. But his most important legacy, of course, was the abolition of the death penalty.
Hoping to capitalise on Britain's war-weary mood, Silverman first tried to get abolition through the House of Commons in 1948. After passing the lower house, the Lords rejected Silverman's Bill, so the Labour Home Secretary of the day, James Chuter Ede, created a Royal Commission instead to investigate "whether the liability to suffer capital punishment should be limited or modified". The Royal Commission made some recommendations regarding the treatment of mentally ill prisoners, and prison conditions, and even said that abolition would be preferable for ethical reasons, but the Commission's report concluded that unless there was overwhelming public support in favour of abolition, the death penalty should be retained.