Less than half of the British population is in favour of the death penalty for the first time ever, according to an authoritative annual survey of attitudes.
The British Social Attitudes survey, run annually since 1983, has been testing support for the death penalty since 1986.
In 1986 74% of the population agreed that execution was the most appropriate punishment for some crimes.
That same proportion of the population still supported the punishment as recently as 1993, according to historic figures.
But attitudes have changed rapidly in the last 20 years. In the latest survey, covering 2014, only 48% of respondents said capital punishment was appropriate – down from 54% in 2013.
This year is the first time less than half the population has been in favour and represents an all-time low.
People who actively support the death penalty still outnumber those who actively oppose it, however – once those who say they aren’t sure are taken into account.
35% of people said the death penalty was not an appropriate punishment in 2014 – up from 29% in 2013 and 19% in 1986.
“The big change in public attitudes to the death penalty came in the 1990s at a time when attitudes to a range of other issues, like same-sex relationships and sex before marriage were also liberalising,” explains Rachel Ormston, Co-Head of Social Attitudes at NatCen Social Research.
“This more recent change is interesting because attitudes have stayed fairly steady for a number of years. It could be the continuation of this liberalising trend or, perhaps, a response to the shocking botched executions in the United States that were widely reported in April and July of last year.”
Capital punishment was ended for murder in Britain in 1965, with the last execution – by hanging – taking place in 1964. The move was extremely unpopular at the time.
The punishment was entirely removed from British law in 1998 by the Human Rights Act. Complete abolition of the death penalty is now a condition of entry to the European Union.
Both Britain and the EU use their foreign policies to help put an end to the death penalty abroad, including in the United States, which is subject to an EU-wide embargo of lethal injection drugs.
“This country opposes the death penalty,” the business secretary Vince Cable said in a statement at the time of the ban. “We are clear that the state should never be complicit in judiciary executions through the use of British drugs in lethal injections.”
The ban appears to be having some effect, with a number of states running low on supplies of lethal injection drugs.
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