The Wilson governments have not been regarded particularly highly by history, partly because of economic factors, and mostly because of the disastrous mid-70s government (which faced problems that no government could have dealt with). However, there’s an argument to be made that the Labour government in the mid-sixties was the third great radical progressive government of the twentieth century, after the Liberal government of the pre-WWI years and the Atlee government of the late 40s.
During a very brief period of time, and (at least at first) with a wafer-thin majority, the Wilson government gave its backing to some enormous changes to British society — usually because of Roy Jenkins, the Home Secretary (and later founder of the SDP, one of the predecessor parties of the Lib Dems) putting his weight behind a Labour or Liberal MP’s private member’s bill. Abortion was legalised, male homosexuality decriminalised, theatre censorship abolished, birching ended, divorce laws relaxed, and (most importantly as far as this post is concerned), the death penalty abolished after Jenkins gave government backing to a bill brought in by backbencher Sydney Silverman.
Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the last executions to take place in the United Kingdom, and I thought it deserved marking. The death penalty was popular among voters, and is still supported by a plurality, if not a majority, and this is one of those occasions which I think shows clearly that representative democracy is better than direct democracy.
So to mark the anniversary of the end of one of the most barbaric practices ever, here are a few related links.
The Howard League’s publications on capital punishment
Amnesty’s look back at fifty years without the death penalty
Reprieve — a charity that campaigns against the death penalty and repression in the US
Amnesty’s campaign to stop a man who has been on death row in Japan for 46 years and has recently been granted a retrial from being sent back to death row
And today I’m thankful that for a brief period of two years, a decade and a half before I was born, Britain had a Home Secretary who said “the permissive society is in reality the civilised society”, and who replaced the board in his office listing execution dates with a drinks cabinet…