Priti Patel’s historic support for the death penalty has attracted new attention, following unconfirmed rumours that the Home Secretary has instructed civil servants to prepare policy documents for the return of capital punishment in Britain.
For some, this is the real old-fashioned Toryism finally showing itself: the desire ‘to birch or hang them all’ that unnerved Harold Macmillan when he heard it from the Tory membership, and which he feared Margaret Thatcher felt too. When the Conservatives returned to power in 2010, an older friend surprised me by asking earnestly if I thought they’d bring back hanging, an idea totally alien to my coming of age under New Labour (when citizens were smuggled abroad in planes before being brutalised), and hard to reconcile with the incoming prime minister David Cameron’s performance of slick modernity. In another reading, the present intimations of execution are not anachronism, but innovation: a Trumpian ruse of playing to the base by being as defiantly repugnant as possible, or—worse—a promise of a terrible new post-Brexit judicial regime.
In fact, whether it is a sincere policy projection, a rumour, or a pose, talk of the death penalty should be interpreted neither as a return of the repressed past nor an invocation of a dystopian future, but as entirely in keeping with what has been a decade of the devaluation of life—and what gets to count as life—under the Conservatives.
One shouldn’t allow New Labour off the hook. Tony Blair greatly expanded the scope of the ‘liberal defence of murder’, as Richard Seymour calls it, when he and the tame press around him allowed the justification for the millions of Iraqi war dead to slip from Saddam Hussein’s immediate threat to Britain’s safety, to the more abstract and unlikely explanation of ‘bringing democracy’ to the region. At home, as Peter Oborne has detailed, New Labour were innovative in finding ways to suspend normal citizenship rights, criminalising everyday life with extra-judicial Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, curfews, and fixed penalty notices, and effectively ending habeas corpus with anti-Terror legislation after 9/11 – all while berating judges for individual rulings on human rights in a manner that would embarrass most alumni of Vote Leave.
Where the Tory 2010s have differed is in uniting these two strands, combining the withdrawal of normal protections of citizenship that characterised their predecessors’ domestic agenda, with a callousness about the disposability of life New Labour usually reserved for abroad.
At the centre of this pattern has been welfare policy. In 2010, the incoming Coalition government made the unprecedented move of extending punitive withholding of benefits (sanctions) from their existing role in disciplining those unemployed who refused to take work, to single parents, the long-term sick, and disabled people who failed to comply with the increasingly baroque administrative demands of the system itself.
The effect was the creation of what Mareile Pfannebecker and I call a ‘disemployed caste’, expelled from the welfare system, but not showing up in employment figures. As we argued this year, ‘it remains impossible to reconcile the routine use of benefit sanctions—generally meaning the withdrawal of an individual’s sole income—with a belief in the liberal state’s responsibility to guarantee a baseline living standard for its citizens. Benefits cannot at once be the guaranteed baseline living standard and a legitimate lever of discipline to be withdrawn’.
Ignoring this contradiction has resulted in mass state-sanctioned death. In 2017, based on the period 2014-2016, the Office for National Statistics made the extraordinary move of revising their predictions for life expectancy in Britain downward, for the first time in a century. According to the same figures, between 2015 and 2017, austerity killed 70,000 people whom the ONS’s model had previously expected to live: the same number as killed by Covid-19 in Britain so far.
A further cheapening of life has underpinned the extraordinary policy of opportunistic deportations of hundreds of Commonwealth and UK citizens on the basis of simple errors of paperwork, as well as those of even British-born criminals with citizenship elsewhere. And in another twist, the coincidence of half of this Tory decade with the Labour leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and a resurgent radical Left in Britain has seen many liberals fail to rise to cases demanding a classically liberal defences of human rights, perhaps out of unease at the Left’s association with them. The making stateless of the teenage ‘Isis bridge’ Shamima Begum in 2019, and the torture and threatened extradition to the United States of the journalist Julian Assange, are two instances of the shameful suspension of human rights in Britain, on which too many liberals have stayed quiet.
The pandemic response obviously represents a complication of the pattern I describe, forcing the state to make unprecedented interventions to keep people alive. But even here, a response prioritising the current organisation of consumer spending, the current hard-won model of marketised higher education (meaning two million potentially infected students travelled around the country this term), at the same time as abject cronyism in the allocation of government contracts, has resulted in one of the most shambolic national responses to Covid-19. While nominally popular, capital punishment is untested political territory in recent times. But should the Tories choose to cultivate it, they will do so on the back of a decade of the cheapening of human life.