Many people are under the false impression than Britain abolished the death penalty in the 1960s, around the same time as many other countries abolished theirs.

In actual fact, it wasn't until 1998 that Britain actually abolished the death penalty.

Even in the 1990s, there were six offences punishable by death in the British Armed Forces.

In the 20th Century, most British executions were hangings, but people accused of treason could be beheaded until as late as the 1970s.

The ruthless and barbaric punishment of Hanging, Drawing and Quartering (used almost exclusively in Britain), in which a felon was drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution, hanged by the neck until almost (but not quite) dead, then cut down, be disembowelled and emasculated and have his genitals and entrails burned before his eyes before finally being dismembered into four parts was not abolished until 1870!

Even those accused of relatively minor crimes faced the death penalty in Britain. People accused of causing fires in naval dockyards, warehouses, etc could be executed up until 1971.

Today (9th November) is the 10th anniversary of the abolition of the death penalty in Britain.

November 9, 2008
The Times

Why you're safe from the death penalty (but only by a decade)

Under the impression that capital offences went out with the mini-skirt? Think again - especially if you gave any false air signals during the 1990s

The death penalty was abolished in Britain in 1998

Today is the anniversary of the abolition of the death penalty in Britain.

Yet, surprisingly, it is only the tenth anniversary. Though the gallows trapdoor last swung open in 1964, the death penalty was only completely abolished in 1998.

The death penalty for murder was ostensibly abolished in 1969 with the Murder (Abolition of the Death Penalty) Act, but unknown to many, the ultimate capital punishment remained on the statute books for a number of other offences for almost three further decades, lasting until the final years of the 20th Century.

The most familiar of these offences was treason, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as: “Violation by a subject of allegiance to the sovereign or to the State, especially by attempting to kill or overthrow the sovereign or to overthrow the government.”

Until 1998, the perpetration of “piracy with violence” was also punishable by death, as decreed by the Piracy Act 1837.

Furthermore, did soldiers in the 1990s know that a Damoclesian sword of execution hung above their heads for six offences? They were listed as:

1 Serious misconduct in action
2 Assisting the enemy,
3 Obstructing operations
4 Giving false air signals
5 Mutiny or incitement to mutiny
6 Failure to suppress a mutiny with intent to assist the enemy

Until 1998, the Army Act decreed that any soldier who disobeyed authority “in such circumstances as to make the disobedience subversive of discipline, or with the object of avoiding any duty or service against, or in connection with operations against, the enemy”, was “liable to suffer death”.

The beginning of the end for the death penalty came 44 years ago. The last men to be hanged by the state were Peter Anthony Allen and Gwynne Owen Evans, who were charged with “capital murder”, before being executed at 9am on August 13, 1964 for the murder of John Alan West.

In 1965, staunch anti-death penalty campaigner and Labour MP Sydney Silverman introduced a private member’s bill to the House, proposing that the death penalty be abolished, which was passed by 200 votes to 98. The bill was passed on a free vote – a vote taken on matters of conscience and in which the party whips do not direct members how to vote.

The Murder (Abolition of the Death Penalty) Act 1965, suspended the death penalty for murder in England, Scotland and Wales (though not in Northern Ireland until 1973), and in 1969, Home Secretary and future Prime Minister James Callaghan made the act permanent.

Die-hards forced the Commons to hold a free vote on a motion during each Parliament proposing the reintroduction of the death penalty, but the motion was always resoundingly defeated.

And yet the death penalty remained in British law for other offences.

Until 1971, anyone found guilty of “causing a fire or explosion in a naval dockyard, ship, magazine or warehouse” was liable to be executed, until the Criminal Damage Act 1971 repealed the capital offence of “arson in a royal dockyard”.

Spies against the realm, and namely naval spies, could be charged with “capital espionage”, punishable by death until 1981, when the Armed Forces Act 1981 revoked the death penalty. Under the Official Secrets Act 1911, espionage still carries a sentence of up to 14 years in prison.

Though no-one has been executed in Britain since Allen and Evans in 1964, death sentences have been passed. In 1973, William Holden was convicted of the capital murder of a British soldier during the Troubles, although he was removed from the death cell later that year.

In 1998, Lord Archer of Sandwell (Peter Kingsley Archer, just to clarify), proposed an amendment to the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, thus abolishing once and for all the death penalty for treason and piracy, replacing it with a discretionary maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

On May 20 1998, the Commons voted through a ratification of the sixth protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights, prohibiting capital punishment except “in time of war or imminent threat of war”, a caveat itself removed when the Human Rights Act 1998 came into force in Britain, ten years ago today.

As Britain is subject to the European Convention, the death penalty cannot be restored in this country unless Britain were to secede from the Council of Europe.

Anti-death penalty campaigners, and philosophers such as Albert Camus in his novel L’Étranger, have always maintained that the fallibility of any justice system - and of human judgement itself – renders immoral the application of so unequivocal a sentence as the death penalty.

Their point was highlighted when, in 2003, the conviction of George Kelly, a 27-year-old man hanged for the murder of a cinema manager in Liverpool in 1950, was overturned by the court of appeal as “unsafe”.

American campaigning group Truth in Justice claim that at least 16 innocent people have been executed in the United States, and continue to press for the abolition of capital punishment in their country.