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How murders multiplied after hanging was abolished

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This is the first of three articles by David Fraser based on his new book about Britain’s surrender to violence, Licence to Kill, which was previewed in TCW yesterday.

Just before midnight in January 2006, Thomas Rhys Price, a 31-year-old lawyer, left a London party and telephoned his fiancée to say that he was on his way home. He emerged from the tube station at Kensal Green after about 20 minutes and walked towards their apartment. A few moments later he was attacked by two thugs. They kicked, beat and stabbed him to death. They stole his Oyster card and his mobile, and ran off. The paramedics who strove unsuccessfully to revive him found his wedding vows strewn on the pavement.

Crimes such as this are not uncommon. This was just one of the thousands of life-threatening and homicidal attacks which occur every year in Britain, once one of the safest places to live. We have the 4th highest rate for aggravated (most serious) violent crime out of 27 European countries. This is not a recent phenomenon. Our violent crime rate has been rising for at least 50 years and apart from recording this development, no government has taken the steps required to interrupt it.

The claim that some of this increase is due to more crimes being reported has never been demonstrated. It is more likely that when there were fewer crimes, more were reported. Comparisons made over time between the number of crimes reported to the British Crime Survey and those recorded by the police do not support the idea that the public are now more willing to report crime. Furthermore, surveys of attitudes towards the criminal justice system suggest the public may report fewer crimes than they did previously.

This avalanche of violent criminality should not be surprising, because for at least five decades the British State has shown an increasingly tolerant attitude towards violent crime, and offenders have taken full advantage. It may not be widely known, for example, that following the abolition of the death penalty in 1964, our homicide rate doubled by the turn of the millennium, despite improvements in medical techniques which have saved the lives of thousands subjected to extreme violence. The BMA estimates that our homicide rate would be five times higher if it were not for these developments.

The following graph shows the number of homicides (per 100,000 of the population) per year in England and Wales from 1950 to 2018. This reveals a remarkable period of stability between 1950 and 1974 with the rate staying between 0.5 and 1.0. Available data indicates this stable trend stretched back to at least 1899.

Thus for at least 75 years the homicide rate was kept under control, and did not start to rise until 1974. Why?

Before abolition of hanging in 1964, a third of murders were followed by suicide. The absolute numbers of these homicide-suicide cases have not changed a great deal, but as a proportion of all homicides, they now represent just 4 per cent.

This, I suggest, explains why the homicide rate remained stable for so long. A larger proportion of killings during the period 1899 to 1974 were carried out either by those who were so dangerous that no form of punishment, no matter how draconian, would deter them from killing, or by sane individuals experiencing a period of instability for whom, likewise, the presence of the death penalty made no difference.

The noticeable increase in the homicide rate since abolition reflects that far more homicides are now committed by violent criminals, often with long criminal track records, who are sane and suffer no pangs of remorse after killing. Previously, they were prepared to control their violent propensities and stop short of killing because of the fear of the hangman’s noose, but with this threat removed felt it much safer to give them full vent. For increasing numbers, this has meant the opportunity to kill a second and sometimes a third time.

In February 2013, the then Prime Minister David Cameron visited India and described the massacre by the British Army in 1919 of 379 demonstrators at Amritsar as ‘shameful’. But this publicly expressed sensitivity to events which occurred almost 100 years ago, in a land far away, is in stark contrast to his silence in relation to the 2,348 homicides committed in his own country between 2010, when he came into office, and 2013 when he made the Amritsar speech. Many of these were committed by criminals allowed to roam because of lenient sentencing endorsed by his government. But all governments remain in denial over this problem. In 2001, a report commissioned by Tony Blair told him that every year in Britain there were not 5million crimes as then recorded by the police, or 12million as per the Crime Survey, but 132million indictable crimes alone (25million of which were violent). A shocked Blair hid the report in a determined bid to ensure the public never saw it. It was leaked several years later, but has never been publicly discussed. Instead, MPs, ministers and officials chose to keep their heads down as they now knew (if they did not already know) that their lenient sentencing policies had changed Britain into a violent criminals’ paradise. Fifteen years later, as research for my book Licence to Kill: Britain’s Surrender to Violence, I approached Lord Birt, the author of the report, for an interview to discuss his findings. But he refused to talk to me about it.

He said he had discussed my request with a senior official who had advised him not to see me.

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David Fraser
David Fraser is the author of Licence to Kill, Britain’s Surrender to Violence. He is a former senior probation officer and criminal intelligence analyst with the National Criminal Intelligence Service (now the National Crime Agency).

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