On the 13th August 1964 Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans were hanged for murder. They were the last people to be executed in the UK. The following year Sydney Silverman MP introduced a private members bill temporarily suspending the death penalty for murder; it was passed by the House of Commons by 200 votes to 98.
Five years later opinion polls showed that over 80% of the public supported the reintroduction of the death penalty. 1 But despite this Parliament passed a resolution which permanently abolished the death penalty for murder.
Our own polling from the 1970s shows that a large proportion of the public continued to support the death penalty after its abolition with more than three quarters saying the death penalty is sometimes justified.
Since 1986 the British Social Attitudes survey (BSA) has tracked attitudes towards the death penalty, regularly asking if the death penalty is sometimes the most appropriate sentence. As the chart below shows, agreement throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s remained stable at around 73%, but over the last 20 years support for the death penalty has fallen.
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Across the population as a whole support for the death penalty has fallen by 20 percentage points from 74% in 1993 to 54% in 2012. This fall coincided with the abolition of the death penalty for treason and piracy with violence in 1998 and the adoption of the 13th protocol of the Human Rights Act in 2003 which prohibits the death penalty under any circumstances.
And there are no longer any significant gaps between the cohorts. The pre-war generation are the only generation that will remember state executions as adults and have been the most likely to support the death penalty. In 1986 they were 14 percentage points more likely to support the death penalty than generation X, but this gap has narrowed over recent years.
We might expect members of generation X and generation Y, who were all born after the abolition of the death penalty, to be significantly more opposed to it. While the lack of state executions during their life time does appear to have coloured their attitudes (they are less likely to support the execution of criminals than older generations) a majority still support the death penalty. Only generation Y has ever seen agreement that the death penalty is sometimes most appropriate drop below 50%.
Previous generational analyses looking at attitudes to women’s roles and homosexuality have shown differences between the older and younger generations which will significantly impact overall public opinion as the pre-war generation die out. Unlike these examples the differences between the attitudes of the older and younger generations towards capital punishment are small and decreasing. A recent poll for the BBC showed that the younger members of generation Y (currently aged 18-21) are only slightly less likely to support capital punishment for serious crimes (56%) than the older members of their cohort (61%) or the overall total (59%). It seems unlikely that younger generations will be significantly more opposed.
Although the last hanging in the UK was 50 years ago there have been frequent calls for the death penalty to be reintroduced. A poll in 2002 found that 59% thought the death penalty should be reintroduced. 2 It may seem that with consistently high support and multiple campaigns to reinstate capital punishment parliament ought to bring back the death penalty. But many of the questions asked fail to measure the importance of the issue to members of the public.
The most recent campaign to reinstate the death penalty was led by Paul Staines, the blogger more commonly known as Guido Fawkes. The campaign included an e-petition which aimed to secure a debate in parliament. The petition closed in February 2012 with 26,351 signatures, just over a quarter of the 100,000 signatures needed to secure the debate. The low response rate suggests that, despite the high levels of support, the public do not feel strongly enough about the issue of capital punishment to push for a change in the law.
In addition, polls on the death penalty are often commissioned in the immediate aftermath of especially brutal or notorious murders when people are particularly angry. Following the murder of Sarah Payne in 2000 MORI asked which of a series of sentences were most appropriate for someone convicted of the murder of a child. Almost six in ten (58%) chose the death penalty and a third (33%) chose a life sentence. However in December 2001 only 41% chose the death penalty and almost half (49%) chose life imprisonment.
British attitudes are broadly in line with those in North America. In the USA support for the death penalty has also fallen over the last 20 years. In 1994 Gallup found that 80% favoured the death penalty for a person convicted of murder. By October 2013 this had fallen to 60%. Similarly in Canada three in five (63%) people would support the death penalty being reinstated, while 30% disagree.
For now, support for death penalty in the UK seems to have plateaued at a new norm. Levels of support have been relatively stable for several years and the differences between the younger and older generations will not be large enough to significantly shift overall opinion as the older cohort dies out. But if the current pattern continues we will continue to see support for the death penalty, very slowly, creep down.
1 HC Deb 24 June 1969 vol 785 cc1228-36
2 House of Commons Library Standard Note (2005) Homicide rate and the death penalty. SN03805
Author: Charlotte Saunders