Public support for the death penalty has fallen below 50%, according to new findings from NatCen’s British Social Attitudes survey. At 48%, the proportion who agree that “for some crimes, the death penalty is the most appropriate sentence” is the lowest ever recorded.
The last state execution in Britain took place in 1964. Capital punishment was ended for murder the following year – though it remained an unused option for treason and a range of other offences. The 1998 Human Rights Act abolished the death penalty altogether.
British Social Attitudes began asking about attitudes to the death penalty in 1986 – 22 years after the last state-sponsored execution in Britain. At this point support for capital punishment remained strong: 74% agreed that the death penalty was the most appropriate punishment for some crimes. Over the course of the 1990s support began to tail off, falling to 57% by 1999. Despite this shift, a majority of the public continued to support capital punishment for some crimes even after it was formally abolished.
Levels of support remained fairly steady, at between 52% and 59%, throughout the 2000s. Even now, more people agree (48%) with the death penalty for some crimes than disagree (35% agree, and 16% “neither agree nor disagree”). But if the 2014 figure represents the start of a further trend towards more liberal attitudes, then at some point in the future these lines will cross over.
Young people have always been less likely than older people to support capital punishment. For example, in 1986, 67% of 18-24s compared with 84% of those aged 65 or older agreed with the death penalty.
In 2014, 43% of 18-24s supported it, compared with 52% of those aged 65 and older. If young people retain their views on the death penalty through their lives then, as older generations are replaced, support for the death penalty should fall further.
However, a closer look at the data suggests that the last three decades have also seen changes in attitudes within generations. For example, 70% of those who were aged 35-44 in 1986 agreed with the death penalty. Members of this group will now be in their mid-60s to early 70s, yet only 52% of those aged 65 or older agree with the death penalty these days. So the change in attitudes has been driven not only by older generations being replaced by younger, more liberal, cohorts, but also by falling support for the death penalty across the generations.
Views have not only become more liberal across age groups, they have also become more liberal across the party political spectrum – with one notable exception. In 1986, a majority of Conservative (83%), Labour (67%), Liberal (73%) and SDP (73%) supporters agreed with the death penalty for some crimes. By 2014, support was below 50% for supporters of all parties except UKIP (75%, compared with 49% of Conservatives, 43% of Labour supporters and 27% of Liberal Democrats).
These findings raise the question of whether falling support for the death penalty is simply a reflection of attitudes becoming increasingly liberal across a range of issues.
British Social Attitudes does provide some support for this theory – for example, we know that attitudes to marriage and relationships have become much more liberal since the early 1990s. But on issues of law and order we have not necessarily seen such a shift. For example, in 1986, 72% agreed that “people who break the law should be given stiffer sentences”; in 2014 the figure was almost identical, at 73%. So our changing attitudes to the death penalty do not appear to be indicative of a general trend towards softer attitudes on issues of crime and punishment.
Perhaps instead it is a reflection of harrowing media coverage of use of the death penalty in other countries. In 2014, there were numerous media stories about botched attempts to execute prisoners in the USA using lethal injection.