LONDON LETTER

The Gallows Still Stands

BEVERLEY BAXTER July 15 1948
LONDON LETTER

The Gallows Still Stands

BEVERLEY BAXTER July 15 1948

The Gallows Still Stands

LONDON LETTER

BEVERLEY BAXTER

A MEMBER of Parliament in any country is forced to lead a many-sided life. Not only must he advise on the problems of his

constituents and plead their cause against the ranks of officialdom, but he must also invade the precincts of prison itself. Thus, in the last six months I have visited two of His Majesty’s prisons— Pentonville to address the inmates and Wandsworth to see a constituent who is spending the next two years there.

The criminal population of Pentonville at the time I went there was 620 and the inmates were offered the choice of listening to me from 6.30 to 7.30 or going to their cells. Five hundred and ninety elected to listen. The only explanation for the others is that they must have heard me speak before.

The first two or three rows were filled with young first offenders. Some of them were fine-looking and of excellent physique. Behind them sat the more experienced criminals, men who had not blundered into it but looked upon crime as their occupation. Then t here were the old lags who come back again and again, especially for the winter, and regard prison as their particular club.

SÍ) I spoke to the men in grey on the subject of a day in the life of Parliament, and then we had quest ions. One old lag, with a voice that could only have been produced by endless libations of neat whisky, asked if the serving of a prison sentence would bar a bloke from becoming an M.P.

“It would not necessarily be a bar,” I replied with becoming tact, “but quite frankly I don’t think it would help.”

A young fellow with wavy blond hair and a mincing voice asked some question about Mr. Speaker’s duties. The whole grisly crowd roared with laughter at his style of speech. He was, in fact, that, most tragic of human figures, the male prostitute. There were questions from prisoners

whose accents and words could only have come 1 men who were actually or very nearly illiterate. Poverty, squalor and ignorance had been their birthright and they knew no other inheritance. I found my mind repeating the words of Victor Hugo: “Voici les misérables! Voici les misérables/”

Then a young chap stood up in the front. His voice was cultured, his bearing manly. “Can you tell us,” he asked, “what the Government is going to do about deserters?”

“I cannot speak for the Government,” I said, “but I believe that it is utterly insane to force deserters to go on hiding and living as criminals. If it were left to me I would declare an amnesty and give these men a chance to work their way back to decent citizenship/’

Deserters Driven to Crime

THE EXCITED applause was like a burst of rifle fire. Unknown to me, nearly all the young criminals there were deserters from the armed forces, men who had been underground for three, four or five years, without ration books, without a home, living on their wits and becoming criminals of necessity. Now, at one word of hope from a solitary M.P., they were like men who were huried in the earth and had struggled until they Could see a faint glimmer of the sky.

Afterward the governor took me for a walk along the almost indecently clean corridors and we saw the guards take their positions for the night. I asked the governor how many of the young offenders would return to prison again. “About one in four or five,” he answered. “But if they come back a second time then the chances are that they will become regulars.”

How grim, how sanitary and how dreadful Pentonville is! Can you imagine anything more fit for Dante’s Inferno than a night during the blitz, when, with a mad irony, the prison was hit by a bomb? I leave the scene and the sounds to your imagination.

This much I learned from my visits to Pentonville and Wandsworth—that prison life debauches far more than it reforms, that it breeds homosexuals and that it often makes permanent criminals of casual offenders.

Murder Close to Home

MY INTEREST in the matter was not only that of a writer but particularly as a politician for, within a few weeks, Home Secretary Chuter Ede would introduce into Parliament a new Criminal Justice Bill in which

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a great nonparty attempt would be made to humanize the whole system of punishing criminals. In it would be embodied the ideas of experts and reformers over the last 15 years.

But, as I explained in a previous letter, when the bill was introduced a new clause was put forward banning the death penalty for a trial period of five years and a great debate ensued which saw all party lines shattered. I found myself in a particularly unhappy position because a very popular and, of course, unarmed policeman in my constituency had recently been murdered by a cruel, cold-blooded young deserter. It was an abominable, revolting crime and my constituents raised a fund of £1,000 for the policeman’s widow. And the trial of the murderer was due to open two days after the hanging debate.

But ever since as a youth I read the “Ballad of Reading Gaol” I have felt that the death penalty degraded society, glamourized murder and raised the killer to be an aristocrat among criminals-—even perhaps an immortal whose crimes would be told in books or plays or newspapers forever.

Certainly there was more crime with violence than England had ever known for a century, but who was to say that the death penalty was a deterrent when there was such an increase in murder? Would it not be more logical to say that the gallows had failed rather than that it should be preserved?

The MP’s Dilemma

At the same time an M.P. must realize that he is sent to Parliament to represent the views of his constituents. Could it be doubted that if a referendum were to be taken in my constituency that there would be an overwhelming vote against abolition? Yet, by the granting of a f?ee vote, each of us became an individual called upon to express his own convictions on a great moral issue, and when the speaker called my name, in an instant all doubt and indecision were gone. Whether or not this was the best time to bring in the reform could be questioned, but that society, in the preservation of its own dignity, should not take human life seemed to me stark clear.

Cheering greeted the announcement that the clause was passed and hanging was to be abolished.

I must confess that I felt no desire to cheer. We had altered the law against the advice of the police, the judges and the Home Secretary. We had saved the lives of the murderers but how many innocent people bad we condemned to death?

And although the Bill had still to pass the House of Lords, the Home Secretary indicated that all murderers under sentence of death would be reprieved and that no further hangings would be carried out.

The next day the storm broke. Letters of abuse and ridicule came pouring in to my house from all over the country. I was a spineless, gutless, witless weakling, a hypocrite shedding tears over murderers and not giving a tinker’s cuss for their victims, a poor, benighted, softheaded simp, in fact. The Conservative Executive in my constituency hoped that 1 would appear before them and make a statement; one of the constituency newspapers demanded that I should reverse my vote when the Lords threw the measure back to us; a Conservative Ward Association in the constituency Passed a vote of censure.

Two days later the murderer of the policeman in my constituency was found guilty. If ever a man deserved to be hanged it was this cruel young blackguard, but his neck was to be saved by our vote in the Commons. Just as things seemed to be quieting down, a constituent of mine decided to murder his uncle and aunt. He, too, would be preserved by our vote. On a golf course, just adjoining the constituency, a boy found a human arm in a pond. The police found the rest of the body. Murder most foul, but if caught the murderer would not now hang.

Then came two letters of encouragement. One was from Lord Templewood who, when he was Sir Samuel Hoare, held the post of Home Secretary. “Stick to your guns,” he wrote. “All reforms must be ahead of public opinion and all reforms must come too soon.” Another was from a vicar in the constituency: “Punishment must be

aimed at reforming the criminal. Society should be too proud to take human life in vengeance.”

One dreaded to look at the newspapers. Certainly it seemed as if the abolition of the death sentence had unleashed the bestial instincts of the criminal world. No wonder that the logical Lords threw the measure out. Even in their House there were voices which said that hanging was unworthy of a civilized nation; but the most devastating speech came from Lord Chief Justice Goddard.

“No longer,” he said, “does the judge in sentencing a murderer to death cause the chaplain to add the words, ‘May God have mercy on your soul,’ because the Home Secretary has forestalled God.” He then accused the Home Secretary of breaking the law by automatically reprieving every murderer merely because the House of Commons had passed a measure which could not become law until it had gone through all the parliamentary stages.

It was a brilliant speech which swayed the House decisively. So the Socialist Party held a hurried secret meeting where Sir Stafford Cripps, despite the fact that he is against the death sentence, pleaded with his Party to agree to a compromise with the Lords. Cripps proved successful where Morrison had failed and the gallows is not to be pulled down after all. It will be used for criminals who kill policemen or prison wardens, also for those who commit murders of women and children, accompanied by violence.

At best it is vague and cannot prove wholly satisfactory, which is no doubt why a special tribunal will be set up to advise the Home Secretary in each case on the use of the reprieve. At any rate, a breach has been made in the line held by those who believe in the death penalty and the advance will be resumed again perhaps sooner than now seems possible,

♦ * *

If I have made this London Letter more personal than usual it was in order that you would understand the human problem which confronted each one of us. Those two visits to prison had convinced me that few men are born evil and that few men lack some element of goodness. The young fellow who killed our policeman was a deserter. If there had been an amnesty in reasonable time he might never have become a murderer.

Can society condemn to death those whom it has first condemned to ignorance and poverty? Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by?

I do not regret that night in the Commons. I could not have spoken or voted otherwise when we were freed of all discipline and were answerable only to our conscience, -jàr