Clause 1. — (Suspension of death penalty for murder.)

Part of Orders of the Day — Criminal Justice Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 15th July 1948.

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Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Woodford 12:00 am, 15th July 1948

But experimental in relation to an entirely different set of facts. We all remember how Queen Elizabeth dealt with poetry and blank verse"—"Marry, this is something. This is rhyme! But this"—the blank verse"—"is neither rhyme nor reason." That is what we have before us now—a mere jumble of points which seem popular at the moment to deal with cases in which, to quote the Attorney-General, public opinion feels that the suspension of the death penalty involves risk—public opinion having been measured in less than a few weeks. It is a mere jumble of points which seem popular at the moment, and which have been suggested by the more recent batch of murders as recorded in the newspapers. It has been put together not with the object of making a better and more humane system of criminal justice but of getting round an awkward Cabinet or Parliamentary difficulty. The Attorney-General said it was a compromise. Confusion is not compromise. A bargain between politicians in difficulties ought not to be the basis of our criminal law. This is an attempt, as the Attorney-General said, to steer a middle course, to steer a course of "no meaning" between the "No" of the abolitionists and the "Yes" of the mass of ordinary folk.

This transaction stands in sorry contrast with the long, majestic evolution across the generations of our Common Law. It is disheartening to see such questions being settled by mere expediency and current party embarrassments. Those who favour the abolition of the death penalty ought to vote against this new proposal which is utterly contrary to their conscientious opinion, or to any opinion about which the plea of conscience can be advanced. Conscience and muddle cannot be reconciled; conscience apart from truth is mere stupidity, regrettable, but by no means respectable.

I come now to a case in which I took some interest myself, and in which an interest was also taken by the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman), who is so anxious to interrupt, and who, I hope, will be fortunate in being able to catch your eye, Sir, in the Debate. I am unable to understand how Members opposite, who supported the execution of the West Africans a few months ago, after these men had been brought three or four times to the scaffold or to the verge of it can explain their position, even to themselves. According to the principles I learned at the Home Office, and the feelings I derive from my own heart, it is an act of inhumanity to "cat and mouse" human beings in this way. This was the most horrible and cold-blooded execution to which the House of Commons, in my long experience, has ever positively and to a large extent directly approved and enforced. I would never have allowed it in any Department or Government of which I was the head. Yet some of those Members, the humanitarians, who approved or acquiesced in this grim deed, now tell us that their consciences and sentiments are outraged by the ordinary long-established procedure of British justice. It is not possible to exhibit a more complete lack of consistency or indeed conviction upon these poignant issues.

The same House of Commons, in the same Session, has, by its vote, saved the life of the brutal lascivious murderer who thrust the poor girl he had raped and assaulted through a port-hole of the ship to the sharks and has sustained the Colonial Secretary in making these five or six Africans, who were under the spell of a degraded superstitution, go through the agony of death three or four times over and hanging them in the end. The number of lives taken on this occasion is nearly equal to half the executions in Britain in a whole year. But that is not the point. The point I have in mind is the degree of suffering inflicted. Hanging, under English law, if properly conducted, is, I believe, an absolutely painless death—