The Europeans, no 25: Sydney Silverman

The Liverpool MP helped abolish the death penalty and was part of a wave of humane reform across Europe

Sydney Silverman addresses the Labour Party conference at the Garrick Theatre, Southport, Lancashire in June 1939. Photograph:  Felix Man/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sydney Silverman addresses the Labour Party conference at the Garrick Theatre, Southport, Lancashire in June 1939. Photograph: Felix Man/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Wed, Jun 19, 2013, 01:00

The clever son of a poor Jewish pedlar, Sydney Silverman was born in Liverpool in 1895 and educated as a scholarship boy at Liverpool Institute and the University of Liverpool. He was a conscientious objector during the first World War and was jailed for his beliefs.

Silverman taught English at the University of Helsinki for four years before returning home in 1925 to qualify as a solicitor. He became a Labour Party councillor, then, in 1935, an MP. He might have expected ministerial office after the Labour landslide of 1945, but his position on the far left of the party, and perhaps his Jewishness, ensured that did not happen. Instead he joined the “Keep Left” ginger group which opposed foreign secretary Ernest Bevin’s anti-Soviet policies.

He was a founder of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in 1957, but his greatest achievement was to launch the National Campaign for the Abolition of Capital Punishment, which succeeded in having the death penalty suspended in Britain in 1965 and abolished in 1969.

Silverman was not always popular, even with allies. Fellow left-winger Richard Crossman found him “vain, difficult and unco-operative”, an individualist who found it impossible to work in a group. Nevertheless, he was an effective campaigner, focusing his argument against the death penalty on known miscarriages of justice, such as the hanging in 1950 of Timothy Evans for the Rillington Place murders, almost certainly committed by John Christie.

Hanging the wrong man
Arguing against the death penalty on the grounds that it is easy to hang the wrong man is perhaps an effective strategy but it seems to suggest that it is ethically justifiable to hang “the right man”. That the death penalty is wrong in itself is an argument that has perhaps been most powerfully put by the French writer Albert Camus, who argued that capital punishment was “the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated, can be compared. For there to be an equivalency, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date on which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not to be encountered in private life.”

European opposition to the death penalty can be traced back to the Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria, whose 1764 Of Crimes and Punishments argued that it was neither moral nor beneficial to society. Italy was one of the earliest states to abolish it (in 1889, though it returned during the fascist period), putting it ahead of Vatican City, which dropped the measure only in 1969. (The Vatican did not actually execute anyone in the 20th century, though its predecessor, the Papal States, did away with hundreds during the 19th.)

Today, Belarus is the only European state to carry out executions, and it is likely to be a long time waiting to join the European Union.

The trend across Europe over the past 50 years has been towards the passing of legislation that is sometimes called liberal, though humane might be a better word: not just the abolition of the death penalty but shorter prison terms, easier dissolution of failed marriages, the removal of laws criminalising homosexual acts and provision for same-sex civil union and marriage.

Self-congratulation might be inappropriate or premature but it is possible that there are reasons to be proud to live in Europe, rather than in the US, China or indeed Japan, where five people have been executed by the state so far this year.

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