Paul Foot

State of terror

(October 1995)

From Socialist Review, No.190, October 1995, pp.12-13.
Copyright © 1995 Socialist Review. Published on MIA with the permission of the Estate of Paul Foot. Paul Foot Internet Archive ( 2005.
Downloaded with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The case of Mumia Abu-Jamal served to highlight the plight of over 3,000 Death Row prisoners in the US. Paul Foot looks at the history and injustice of capital punishment in Britain

As we contemplate the horrors of Death Row we’re inclined to write off capital punishment as a peculiarly American barbarism, a throwback to the distant reactionary past, unthinkable in civilised social democratic Britain. In fact, between 1900 and 1949 some 632 people were murdered by the British state because they had allegedly committed murder.

In 1949 there was a Labour government in office. In the (Tory) Federal Republic of Germany capital punishment had just been abolished. In Holland and Scandinavia there had been no capital punishment for more than 50 years. British Labour, true to its radical traditions, could not make up its mind. It ducked the question by appointing a Royal Commission, which took four years to report. In the interim, with Labour still in office, Timothy Evans, a young Welsh worker, was brutally done to death by the hangman for murdering his beloved baby daughter – a murder to which Reginald Christie confessed several years later.

The Royal Commission report in 1953 saw arguments on both sides, and its recommendations were equivocal. The (Tory) government happily decided to do nothing. But the argument would not go away. It was taken up enthusiastically by reformers of every description. Influential books by the socialist publisher Victor Gollancz and by Arthur Koestler put the case against. In 1957 capital punishment was abolished for most murders and retained only for murders of policemen or with firearms. Under this law James Hanratty, a young worker from north London, was hanged for a murder near Bedford on the A6 when (as later evidence proved) he was 200 miles away in Rhyl at the time.

The argument for abolition got angrier. In 1965 the new Labour government allowed time for a private member’s bill which finally abolished it.

Through all those years the argument on both sides of the Atlantic was rational.

The case for capital punishment was based almost exclusively on its effectiveness as a deterrent. It was widely agreed by people on both sides of the argument that capital punishment was wholly indefensible unless it prevented murder on a substantial scale.

The more the argument for capital punishment depended on a rational case for deterrence, the more it was lost. The Royal Commission found no conclusive evidence of deterrence. Especially impressive were the statistics from the United States where capital punishment had been abolished in some states, not in others. In North Dakota, for instance, where capital punishment was abolished in 1915, the murder rate was slightly lower than in South Dakota where the social composition was very similar and where capital punishment was still in force. In Maine capital punishment had been abolished in 1876 and reintroduced after a right wing hullabaloo following an especially nasty murder. The murder rate, however, went up even faster, so capital punishment was abolished again in 1887 – after which the rate subsided.

The truth was that there was no correlation at all between the incidence of capital punishment and the incidence of murder. Murders were mainly personal or domestic crimes, immune from deterrence. Moreover, there were plenty of American ‘mistakes’ similar to the tragedies of Timothy Evans and James Hanratty. Capital punishment did not deter murders, and if a ‘mistake’ was made, there was no way of putting it right.

In the 1950s and 1960s the possibility of such a mistake was widely dismissed in polite society. Lord Chancellor Lord Kilmuir, discussing the Evans case, told parliament that the idea that a judge, jury and the court of appeal could convict the wrong person was ‘in the realms of fantasy’. Those realms of fantasy have been visited again and again in recent years as an enormous stream of prisoners wrongly convicted for murder have emerged from the high court after years of wholly unjustified, and not at all fantastical, imprisonment.

As long as the argument remains on a rational level – does hanging deter? – capital punishment doesn’t stand a chance. The most remarkable feature of the recent enthusiasm for the rope and the electric chair, however, is that it casts all reason aside. It is founded almost entirely on medieval incantations about ‘retribution’ (‘an eye for an eye’) and on a belief in violent punishment as a means of keeping the ‘criminal classes’ (that is, the lower classes) in order.

The loonies who swept into the US Congress and Senate in last year’s right wing backlash couldn’t care less whether capital punishment deters or not. They are like the lynch mobs in those westerns where justice for a (usually white) victim of crime is the instant murder of someone who might (or might not) be responsible. Guilt and deterrence are not really relevant provided the anger of the mob is assuaged in blood.

There is a grim logic behind this abandonment of logic. It was summed up for me when I was asked recently to take part in an episode of the BBC’s Moral Maze. The issue was the state murder of some poor British man who had been on Death Row for as long as anyone could remember. I came armed with the legal statistics about deterrence and mistakes by the legal system. They were brushed aside. An American professor in London declared, ‘I am with Thomas Hobbes. I want people to live in permanent fear of the laws.’

This assertion, which I dare say is a bit hard on Hobbes, explains what is happening. As the lunacies and unfairnesses of the market system become more and more obvious, as the precious market fails more and more ostentatiously to deliver the even-handed, civilised, rational society it promises, so the people who benefit from it seek to escape from rational thought altogether. Unable any longer even to pretend that their system can erode the poverty and inequality which create crime, they search for slogans which will satisfy the rage of the victims of crime and keep them in order at the same time. ‘Kill the murderers!’ is a fine slogan for both purposes, especially as almost all the alleged murderers due to be killed are poor or black or both.

It matters not an iota that killing murderers does nothing to stop killing or murder, or that the people being executed may not be murderers at all. What matters is the immediate satisfaction of blood lust. The feeling that something is being done is far better than the reality of doing something, especially when doing something means dismantling the inequalities on which class society depends. It follows that the politicians and businessmen who clamour for these state murders are far, far more guilty of violence and social chaos than any of the victims of their society whom they want to murder.


Last updated on 12.2.2005