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Capital Bravado

There are a wealth of compelling and passionate arguments both for and against capital punishment and I do not intend to go into them now.

I would rather comment on the state of British politics in the light of what I regard as a rather surprising development:

David Davis, the shadow home secretary, yesterday demanded the reintroduction of the death penalty.

In his first interview since his appointment last week, Mr Davis backed the return of capital punishment in cases of “clearly pre-meditated and cold-blooded murder”. He favours the use of lethal injections over more antiquated methods such as hanging.

I must admit that this came as something of a shock to me. From what little I know of Mr Davis I gather that he is a man possessed of definite principles but (in common with the rest of his Conservative colleagues) has been too timid to give voice to them.

This is quite revolutionary really. For the last decade at least, the Conservatives have been on the run. Having lost every scrap of moral legitimacy to their opponents on the left (even before they were booted out of office in 1997) British Tories lost whatever ability they had to influence the national discourse. In fact, so beleaguered and timid did they become, that no senior Tory could stick his or her head over the parapet of national life without getting promptly chased back into their hidey-holes by a contemptuous and excoriating press.

It would have been sufficiently comment-worthy had Mr Davis merely made some squeaky, semi-apologetic noises about taxes and regulations. But this? This is a bombshell. Capital punishment was abolished in Britain in 1965 and while there was some serious campaigning for its re-introduction for many years afterwards, the issue has since lapsed into total disrepute. For the last decade at least, calls for restoration of the death penalty have been considered ‘beyond the pale’ – a hobbyhorse for neanderthals and wierdos but not the kind of thing that proper, grownup people discussed in proper, grown-up circles.

By puncturing this taboo, Mr Davis is not just launching an attack, he is going straight for the meta-contextual jugular and I get the feeling that the predictable eruption of spluttering outrage will not make him back down an inch. He must surely have realised what impact his statement would have and he still felt sufficient confidence to utter it publicly and utter it now.

This was not a policy statement. Not yet anyway. It was a shot across the bows of the Guardian-reading classes. It will not be the last. The Conservatives have got their nerve back.

42 comments to Capital Bravado

  • Jacob

    Beware! Davis will get Britain thrown out of the EU for such talk !

  • On the contrary, all he has done is (in your words) made himself look like a neanderthal weirdo.

  • Rob Read

    I’m personally against the death penalty…

    It’s such a let off!

  • I look forward to a senior Conservative politician saying that Chief Constables should be summarily fired for acting like the paramilitary wing of the Guardian instead of apprehending crooks.

  • Julian Taylor

    Poor David Davis. Gauleiter Blunkett’s “Shock, Awe ‘n Terrify” tactics must be a pretty hard act to follow for anyone in the Labour Party, let alone for the opposition to try and oneup upon.

  • Verity

    I would think that very few women reading Gone With The Wind these days think of Clark Gable or his moustache. I’m not sure I did when I read it. The book is not only a thumping good read – as in promising yourself that you’ll just read to the end of the chapter and then turn out the light because you have to go to work the next day, then continuing to read on and on and on – but the character of Scarlett O’Hara is very well limned. As it Rhett Butler and even the awful Ashley. It is a tragedy that Margaret Mitchell died – run over by a tram in Atlanta – before she could write another book, because she was an outstanding author. Even just as a story about the American war between the states, without the strongly drawn characters and the powerful plot, it would make an excellent read.

  • Verity

    Sorry. I earmarked the wrong thread and didn’t check when I returned to it. My bad.

  • I agree with DD’s assesment. I have always been in favour of capital punishment for mass murder. I think it is as affront to the taxpayer to fund these bastards until they die.

  • DMorris

    What’s so “antiquated” about hanging?
    Poisoning (lethal injection sans physician & syringe) is probably just as old a method of execution by tyrants who weren’t constrained by a jury. Why are people so squeamish about inflicting a degree of pain on a murdering scumbag who inflicted pain & suffering on an innocent victim? The fear of being viewed by the French as uncivilized? Bah! Uncivilized is treating convicted murderers (the ultimate in uncivilized beings) with irrelevant compassion. Murdering animals should face the fear of shame, pain and horror rather than a big sleeping pill. A revolting act? Yeah, murder certainly is.

    Besides, rope’s cheap.

  • Inspire 28

    Anyone who, as have I, worked in an industrial setting knows that a frequent cause of worker death is entering a space with reduced oxygen – you don’t even know you are dying.
    While I agree that the theoretical moment of death from cyanide poisoning may be momentarily painful, I also know that my vein structure would make lethal injection cruel and unusual.
    Opponents of the death penalty are responsible for at least one out of every five murders in California – on death row, 45% were there after killing someone AFTER their first conviction for murder.
    Someone has to carry out the garbage. Those who lack the guts to do it should stay out of the way of those who will do the necessary.

  • Julian Morrison

    Yay! Politics is interesting again!

    Is it wrong for an anarchist to find politics so fun to watch? *grins* Just like a priest getting playboy channel on his cable TV…


    As to the death penalty thing, well, I’ll just say: civilized people don’t do torture. It’s evil and it spreads evil, debasing and dehumanizing torturer, audience, and the entirety of the surrounding social context. A society that accepts routine torture is as rotten sick as imperial Rome. All cruel societies fall into militarism, despotism, cultural and conceptual decline. Cruelty is the enemy of liberty, because individualism is founded on the golden rule, and via that, on empathy.

  • Inspire 28

    A properly carried out execution is not torture. Arguably life in prison is torture. At any rate, sophistries like Julian’s, above, kill millions.

  • Julian Morrison

    Execution needn’t be torture, yup. I was replying to DMorris really. I have no problems with executions of crooks – especially people shooting crooks they catch red handed, at the scene and time of the crime. But I don’t think the “get them back with torture for torure” approach is good. It risks doing orders of magnitude more long term damage than was done by the murderer (because at least their cruelties are condemned, not lauded).

  • Matthew O'Keeffe


    You’re aware, I’m sure, that David Davis is best friends with John Blundell? For the American readers, John Blundell is head of the Institute for Economic Affairs here in London and was my old boss at the Institute for Humane Studies just over 10 years ago. Let’s hope that something rubs off! I have met Davis a few times at the IEA now.

  • Abby

    I am not at all sure the UK even has the authority to bring back capital punishment. Protocol 6 of the European Convention on human rights abolishes the death penalty among member nations.

    The UK was the first to sign and ratify the treaty in 1951, and it accepted all of the optional clause in 1997. I may be mistaken, but I think any such action by Britain would land it in front of the European Court of Human rights. The UK has emerged bloodied from most of its previous tangles with the European Courts.

    But perhaps I am wrong, I don’t follow the European courts that closely.

  • lucklucky


    Maybe the Guardian can support this…

  • Based on my limited understanding of the political balance of power in the UK right now, the Conservatives have little to lose by this kind of statement, but a lot of potential for gain.

  • Abby, they perhaps this statement is a proxy for saying “get Britain out of the EU”?

  • Hmmmm… execute scum like Peter Sutcliffe and Donald Nielsen, then get tossed out of the EU.

    Someone point out the downside of all this to me, I must be missing the point.

    62% of the people polled want the death penalty reinstated. Anyone want to bet me that NO British politician would ever put it to a binding referendum?

  • eric

    Kim points out one of the reasons the death penalty is still used in the USA. The people want it.

    It will be interesting indeed to see what (if any) reaction there is to this.

  • cubanbob

    Rename the death penalty to retrospective abortion. That should solve the EU issue. If nothing else it would make for interesting conversation regarding the difference between pre partum and post partum infanticide.

  • infamouse

    It’s not like other European nations are adhering to the EU agreements they signed (France, Germany, the Growth and Stability Pact) so why can’t the UK do what it thinks is appropriate?

    Go Tories! Woohoo! Fight the Power!

  • Margot

    We in the States have imprisoned innocent men. It is only with great good luck that we may never have put any to death. Who knows? I don’t want that on my conscience.

  • Verity

    Well, Margot, as you don’t live in Britain, you won’t have to worry that our legislation will be on your conscience. If the death penalty is re-instated, it will only be for people who have been proved via their DNA to have committed the murder(s).

    Weak, indecisive, wobbly John Major has boldly stepped up to bat and says he disapproves of Davis’s statement. Can no one shut this man up? Didn’t he do enough damage when he was PM?

    David Mercer – Oddly enough, that thought had crossed my mind, too. It looks as though the Tories are going to subliminally prepare Britain for a genuine debate about the EU.

  • Auberon Waugh always said that he was opposed to the reintroduction of the death penalty on the grounds that ‘the working classes had done absolutely nothing to deserve such a treat’.

  • Eamon Brennan

    And of course DNA evidence is infallible after all.

    Eamon Brennan

  • Andrew Duffin

    Sorry to rain on your parade, guys, but it seems Michael Howard has already disowned Mr. Davis’ views.

    Back to the real world.

  • steve

    If the death penalty is re-instated, it will only be for people who have been proved via their DNA to have committed the murder(s).

    This still requires some arbitrary choice of a degree of certainty we’d count as “proof” though. 51%, 99.999%? Even DNA evidence doesn’t *prove* anything. If you were on trial what degree of certainty would you want the jury to have that you were guilty (regardless of actual guilt) before sending you to the gallows?

    Do you have to have enough faith in the integrity and incorruptability of the police, and robustness of their procedures, to sanction a system that could see the state quite legally kill you?

  • Verity

    I thought DNA evidence was incontrovertible.

  • Eamon Brennan


    If perfectly obtained from an uncontaminated site. Perfectly processed with no interference, either malign or due to incompetence and if the various databases have been maintined perfectly, then yes it is incontrovertible.

    Eamon Brennan

  • two things:

    1) Davis is obviously making a play for the right, and considering how Blunkett has managed to steal that ground, what’s left? I don’t see it as having balls (after all, remember the cries in favour of execution in the wake of the Soham murders?) – I see it as opportunism. British Spin I think, has a perfect take on it:

    “Extra bonus points are awarded for getting coverage for a policy a) You won’t legislate on, b) you won’t win on even if you did, and therefore c) Is absolutely meaningless.”

    2) I am always slightly suspicious of any assertions that scientific evidence is “incontravertible”, after all, science moves on and new things are discovered. DNA evidence may be seen as incontravertible now, but weren’t other forms of evidence similarly infallible in the past?

  • steve

    I thought DNA evidence was incontrovertible.

    In addition to Eamon’s points, there is the statistical point that in a large population there’s a significant chance that more than one individual could have been the source of a given DNA sample. As a result DNA evidence can only be used as corroborating evidence (not sure what the exact legal terminology is, but I think it means you can’t be convicted on DNA evidence alone).

  • zack mollusc

    If we don’t want a death penalty for fear that someone may be wrongly convicted, then can’t we work out if the ‘wrongful conviction’ tally is higher or lower than the number of victims of people who would have been executed for a previous crime?

  • Julian Morrison

    Andrew Duffin: Sorry to rain on your parade, guys, but it seems Michael Howard has already disowned Mr. Davis’ views.

    That’s how policians work. Underling A posits something, boss B disowns it. Then they watch how the row plays out.

    If you want to know what a politician’s thinking: what he does is what he thinks he can get away with now, and what he hints at (or goes out of his way to deny) is what he would like to get away with in future.

  • Dishman

    I’m with Kim and (perhaps surprisingly) Julian on this one. This could be an angle for getting the UK out of the EU. If this trial balloon goes well, it may be followed with some serious weight.

    I think this is probably worth supporting, particularly with the “It’ll get us kicked out of the EU” angle.

  • Egads – a right wing politician actually uttering a right wing idea! What next? Monogamy and anti-homosexual statements?

  • Simon Jester

    I thought DNA evidence was incontrovertible.

    In addition to Eamon and Steve’s points, it is only near-conclusive when selecting among unrelated people. Among people who are closely related, it is much more likely to produce false positives.

  • Verity

    Julian makes a valid point. David Davis ran it up the flagpole. Michael Howard disclaims it and keeps an eagle eye on who’s saluting. The people who developed this dodge into a fine are are currently working in Downing St. Nary a day goes by without some minister announcing something and Blair saying, no, no, that’s not going to happen. The nice thing about Tony Blair is, he’s so sincere. He would never lie to the electorate or mislead them in any way.

  • Cobden Bright

    There are three key problems with the death sentence.

    Firstly, it stops no more repeat murders than a “life means life” sentence in solitary confinement would do. And there is no evidence of a deterrent effect.

    Secondly, it inevitably results in the cold-blooded murder of those innocent people who are wrongfully convicted of a capital crime. It is obviously impossible to reverse the decision, or compensate the victim, and the murderers (the jury, judge, and politicians who voted in the death penalty) get off scot free, instead of being executed themselves as would be just.

    Third, a quick and relatively painless execution is a far easier way out for a cold-blooded killer than being locked up in solitary confinement in a 8×6 cell for the next 30 or 40 years.

    So – the death penalty has no effect on the number of repeat murders, increases the number of innocent people being killed, and lets the most vicious of criminals off lightly. Given that these three things are generally held to be undesireable, can someone explain what exactly is achieved by having it?

  • Tom

    I feel reasonably confident that one of the reasons the death penalty is as popular as it is in the United States is that we went through a couple of decades, where the State had said “life means ‘life’,” but it lied. Once a murder is executed, there’s no chance of the State reneging on its end of the sentence.

    Also, I think a lot of the debate is about do people (in the abstract) really have the right or not to kill murderers? If so, then plausibly that right can be delegated to the State. Some anti-death-penalty arguments imply a claim that the use of leathal force to stop murder is immoral.

    Where I see a real emerging problem with “life means life” is what do we do when technology reaches the point where ordinary medical care includes a continual cure for aging?