Fifty Years

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…

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4 Responses to Fifty Years

  1. Yes, Roy Jenkins was great. It’s a shame he never got to be Prime Minister, but that gets us into some very complicated counter-factuals. I think another reason for the Wilson governments unfairly getting a bad reputation is that Britain has been dominated by Thatcherism for so long. Wilson is a convenient scapegoat for the economic libertarian side (which claims that socialism, Liberalism and traditional conservatism had all failed in the 70s and drastic new solutions were needed) and the social conservative side (which claims that the 60s were a ‘failed experiment’ and we should go back to an imaginary version of the 50s). According to Matthew Cooper, Dominic Sandbrook’s books on modern Britain push the Thatcherite view of history using misleading arguments and sloppy research.

    The permissive society was helped by other parts of the British Establishment too: Sir Hugh Greene at the BBC, Peter Hall and Peter Brook at the RSC. The strongest reactionary backlash came from grassroots organisations such as the NVALA. Mary Whitehouse and co were spectacularly ignorant and prejudiced but demanded a direct say in the running of the BBC. I think that all supports your argument that representative democracy is better than direct democracy.

  2. Mike Taylor says:

    “The death penalty […] is still supported by a plurality, if not a majority.”

    What does this distinction mean in this context? Thanks.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Can’t remember the precise figures, but it’s something like 45% support, 38% oppose, 17% don’t know. This is down from four years ago when 51% supported the death penalty.

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