I expect the acutely distressing case of Tia Sharp to spark fresh debate about reintroducing the death penalty, and not only because her father has called for the murderer to be hanged. It can’t happen, you may say - not least because so many appalling miscarriages of justice have been exposed in the decades since capital punishment was abolished. The posthumous pardon of Derek Bentley is perhaps the most potent weapon in the armoury of its detractors.
Parliament hasn’t voted on the death penalty since the 1990s. But is the political wind changing?
An opinion poll today underlines the spectacular inroads made by UKIP into the support of the mainstream parties, and the prime minister’s seemingly vain concession to his eurosceptic rebels is making for a febrile atmosphere at Westminster. (This is relevant, bear with me.)
Few expect UKIP ever to form a government its own right, but even fewer would deny it is changing the political climate. And though it is not official party policy, many UKIP members support the return of capital punishment. A UKIP spokesman told me: ‘We think it’s a question that should be allowed to be raised, but we have no corporate position. It is free-vote territory. You couldn’t impose the whip in [a Commons vote on capital punishment].’
Chief among these supporters is UKIP deputy leader Paul Nuttall, UKIP MEP for the north-west of England. He wants the death penalty introduced for child murderers, serial killers and those who murder police officers. Nuttall stresses that it is UKIP’s policy to hold a referendum on controversial issues which gain the support of 5% of the population.
In 2011, Nuttall signed a petition on the Downing Street website launched by political blogger Guido Fawkes which had the aim of attracting the necessary 100,000 signatures to trigger a debate. As he pointed out at the time, a YouGov poll found that 62% of people would support the death penalty for child murder and 65% for serial murder.
That a majority of the electorate support the death penalty for the most heinous crimes appears indisputable. Opponents of capital punishment were relieved when the petition closed with just 26,000 signatures – a counter-petition got 33,000.
Of course, it could never happen anyway while we remain ‘in Europe’. This is the only region in the world where the death penalty is no longer applied. All the Council of Europe's 47 member states have either abolished capital punishment or instituted a moratorium on executions. This determination to eradicate the death penalty was reflected in Protocol 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights.
Moreover, as the Foreign Office stresses in the present government’s global Strategy for Abolition of the Death Penalty 2010- 2015: ‘It is the longstanding policy of the UK to oppose the death penalty in all circumstances as a matter of principle’.
This is what the prime minister has to say. He told Dylan Jones, the author of Cameron on Cameron: ‘[If] someone murdered one of my children then emotionally, obviously I would want to kill them. How could you not? But there have been too many cases of things going wrong, of the wrong people being executed, of evidence coming to light after the execution, and sometimes there is just too much of an element of doubt. And I just don't honestly think that in a civilised society like ours that you can have the death penalty any more.’
I agree with the PM. But what if Britain does hold a referendum on EU membership and pulls out? Could one foresee a future government of the right bringing this back to the Commons? Not all Conservative MPs share Mr Cameron’s misgivings; not all Labour politicians do, either.
Enough crystal ball-gazing at this point, since I would not claim to be any better at it than the psephologists who were mugged by Mr Farage and co at the local elections. But I would suggest that the return of capital punishment has gone from being impossible, to being highly unlikely. A small shift perhaps, but a perceptible shift nevertheless.
Paul Rogerson is Gazette editor-in-chief
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