Mannheim Matters - Supplementary Material


Sir Louis Blom-Cooper speech at T P Morris’ celebration, 23 May 2012

Sir Louis Blom Cooper speech at T P Morris’ celebration on 23 May 2012



When TPM and I published Fine Lines and Distinctions in 2011 a friend inquired of us how long it took to write the book. Jokingly, we said 50 years. But there was an essential ingredient in that joke. The work on homicide traced its origins to the time when TPM and I were involved in the capital punishment debate in the 1950s and 60s. If that work is not historical, in the sense that its story focuses on the abolition in 1965/69, I invite the audience to read the chapter on Sir Edward Coke, not only for its exemplar as a piece of legal history but for the mastery of prose that is TPM, a rare talent in the worlds of sociologists and lawyers.

Our association was two-fold. First it was a true partnership of a criminologist and lawyer-manqué, and a lawyer, criminologist-manqué with a touch of journalism. Second it was a coalescence with the world of socio-political activity focussed on the issue of the day – ridding a democracy of the death penalty for murder. The latter role was buttressed by our joint effort in the Legal Research Unit at Bedford College (metamorphosed into Royal Holloway and Bedford New College and then extinguished as Royal Holloway simpliciter). The LRU produced in 1969 a research pamphlet that was widely used in December 1969: a letter from Lord Shackleton, Leader of the House, is an unpublished testimony to that work, one of the early socio-legal studies of the law in action.

What did we bring to the debate on capital punishment over and above the 1969 work?

1.    The issues of Vigil in the Observer, post-Arthur Koestler, which led to

2.    The Calendar of Murder.

3.    The unofficial and covert link with the judges, which provided one feature of note:

4.    The non-publicity of the judiciary, post-1957.


This is an untold story

Before and at the time of the Homicide Act 1957, the public were led to believe that the higher judiciary was solidly behind the retentionists. Lord Goddard said to that, using his position as a member of the House of Lords to tell peers, incorrectly as it later appeared, that the Queen’s Bench judges (who then exclusively tried murder cases) were unanimously in favour.

But the tide was moving, none too certainly, against the death penalty; Sydney Silverman’s tireless efforts produced a victory in the House of Lords in the 1948 Criminal Justice Bill, which led to the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment (the Gower Commission) 1949-1953. Like its modern counterpart, the reference to the Law Commission in 2005 of a restricted review of murder, the inevitable conclusion was the impossibility of categorising types of murder/manslaughter. The political response from the retentionists was the Homicide Act 1957 – a half-way house that pleased nobody and displeased the judges of a new generation.

The protracted debate in 1965, via Lord Parker in the House of Lords on 28 July 1965 (following a House of Commons victory on the Bill), indicated judicial support. What the public was unaware of was the precise stance of the judiciary. In accordance with the strong tradition of judicial silence on political affairs the view of the judges was unknown. But was it unknown to parliamentarians?

In sharp contrast to the USA (where the abolitionist lobby has sought primarily to win the battle in the courts) in the UK the issue was never fought in the courtroom, but in the inner circle of political power, Parliament. Yet the judges were not entirely touchline observers. An extraordinary piece of archival material has emerged, not entirely untelegraphed.

It was not long before the absurdities of the Homicide Act 1957 were to emerge. At a conference in Vancouver, BC in September 1959 Lord Parker, who became Lord Chief Justice in 1958, made known his dislike for parliamentary action, and indicated that the only sensible course was to move forward to abolition. (That speech incidentally led to a protest from R A Butler to the Lord Chancellor – an early instance of political reaction to the judiciary.)

Undeclared, an event in 1962 was significant, if not a factor in encouraging the abolitionists to seek reform in Parliament. On 14 February 1962, according to a note on file of Home Office records on criminal justice, Lord Parker held a press briefing for lobby correspondents, repeating his 1959 Vancouver lecture. Whatever view purists might express about the separation of powers, the intention seems clear. The off-the-record briefing was designed to communicate to MPs that the judiciary would support the ending of capital punishment, confirmed by the Lord Chief Justice when the House of Lords came to the vote on 28 July 1965.

Looking back on those years, TPM and I can admit that we missed a trick. Why had we not written to indicate that the death penalty was doomed, in the light of the opinion of those who were closest to the administration of British justice and whose opinion would carry great weight with a British public confident in the quality of the judiciary.

But we did not miss much – A Calendar of Murder, in its unalloyed detailing of the constituent elements of homicidal events, largely domestic, was powerful ammunition without the necessity for moral and political argumentation. For that simple manifestation of the law in action, the credit lies in the efforts of criminology, for which the Mannheim Institute is a contemporary manifestation.


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