This futile debate about bringing back hanging

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The Independent Online

The public is clearly worried about crime and punishment, but we seem as a nation to be less willing than we were to exact the ultimate penalty.

It is a sign of the times, and an encouraging one, that so much of the renewed debate about the restoration of the death penalty seems fatuous. That is not just because of the incoherence of so many of the proponents of hanging, although that has certainly been a feature of their arguments. Nor is it just that those hysterical voices calling for legalised murder seem more and more isolated, although the fact that they are such a visibly shrinking band is also striking.

The important change is the sense that, even against the background of such an appalling crime as the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, there is no public mood for hanging to be brought back. The polling has indicated only lukewarm support, and that at a time when emotions about child murder are running exceptionally high. The debate about the return of hanging sounds about as relevant as one about the return of the wig tax.

The reality, of course, is that a Parliament with a Labour majority of 167 is not going to reintroduce hanging. If anything, that understates parliamentary resistance to capital punishment. Even 15 years ago, when we had a Conservative government led by a committed hanger, Margaret Thatcher, commanding a similar landslide majority, and with the Brighton bombing still a recent memory, the reactionaries were kept at bay.

The likes of Ann Widdecombe have never been as powerful as their high profile suggests. Today, miscarriages of justice such as the cases of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four have persuaded some thoughtful Tories who were once in favour of the death penalty, notably the former Home Secretary Michael Howard, to change their minds. That, of course, is why those who want to reintroduce this barbaric practice demand a referendum. But it is not a major constitutional issue, and Parliament is the right place to decide such matters.

The public is clearly worried about crime and punishment. But we seem as a nation to be less willing than we were to exact the ultimate penalty. Thus, while this summer has been scarred by an act of unfathomable brutality, in one respect at least we do seem to have become a more civilised society.