December 8, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Margaret Thatcher calls for capital punishment

2 min read
UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher supported the reintroduction of capital punishment in the 1980s and agreed to free votes that ultimately failed
Thatcher capital punishment

It’s often overlooked that Margaret Thatcher was a keen supporter of capital punishment, a fact confirmed by classified documents released in recent years. But her support for hanging was well known during her tenure in office.

In 1979, Thatcher pledged to bring back hanging during the General Election that first brought her to power. A month before the election, she told a radio show – as reported in the newspaper above – that hanging was supported by most of the British people (which it was at the time) and would be a deterrent.

DISCOVER: Why Thatcher wasn’t expected to last long

Capital punishment for “vicious young thugs” – Thatcher

Interestingly she specified “vicious young thugs” as being ideal candidates for capital punishment. The highlighting of their age would have played into widespread fears in the 1970s about feral hooligans mugging old people, etc. She clearly wasn’t thinking about the middle-class Tory GP poisoning his wife.

Capital punishment had been scrapped in 1964 under a Labour government and with a progressive Home Secretary in the shape of Roy Jenkins. Thatcher pledged a free vote in the House of Commons on the issue and that led to attempts in 1979 and 1982 to re-introduce hanging.

Most MPs however didn’t share Thatcher’s enthusiasm for the gallows. And this caused a tabloid furore at the time when members of parliament being accused of arrogance and indifference. So in 1984, there was a third attempt and those of us who opposed capital punishment were quite worried that this time, MPs might buckle.

Thatcher wanted capital punishment in Northern Ireland

The 1984 motion before parliament played on re-introduction for terrorists who commit murder – along with four or five other murder-related offences including police officers. This was at the height of the Northern Ireland “Troubles”.

The idea that hanging would have diffused the strife in Ulster makes me shudder today – being half-Irish. It would have created martyrs – such as those who had already committed suicide through hunger strikes in 1981. Catholic bishops in Northern Ireland warned Thatcher that the move would be highly counter-productive but I doubt she gave a damn about their views.

Thatcher’s Cabinet was very divided on the issue with possibly most ministers opposing capital punishment. Her Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, was in favour of re-introduction for terrorism. But heavyweight ministers like James Prior were absolutely opposed.

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