What is the connection between the Human Rights Act 1998, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and Tom Jones? NO, this is not to do with changes in the law since novelist Henry Fielding worked as a magistrate among the criminalized poor of eighteenth century London, nor is it to do with the rights and wrongs of throwing your underwear at your favourite singer. This is to do with a Number One Christmas hit, the Green Green Grass of Home, and the abolition of the death penalty.
The green of the grass, Mary’s hair of gold and lips like cherries … so far, so Christmassy. Green, red and gold evoke holly and ivy, berries and the Magi’s gifts, and returning home to the family home, particularly a Welsh family home, is a Christmas theme. The nostalgia draws us in, but there is a sting in the tail (or rather tale), signalled by the shift from song to spoken word, when we realise that it is about a condemned man, waiting for the guard and the ‘padre’ to take him to his execution. Christmas carols are not all cheerful either. The Sans Day Carol and the Holly and the Ivy associate red berries with blood, and the gold of kingship comes with myrrh, a reminder of death. Nevertheless, this was a strange song to be top of the pops at Christmas 1966.
For where is the scene set? Logic suggests not in England or Wales, as the death penalty here was suspended in 1965 under The Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act. The Act was the result of a Private Members’ bill, brought by Sydney Silverman MP, and in 1969, the abolition was made permanent.
And how does what happened in the 1960s connect with two acts of Parliament in 1998? After 1969, the death penalty still remained a sentencing option in convictions for high treason and piracy with violence, and was only finally removed on 30 September 1998 by s.36 of the Crime and Disorder Act. This was necessary because the Human Rights Act 1998 incorporated the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights into British domestic law, and Protocol 13 of the Convention bans the death penalty in all circumstances, including for crimes committed in times of war and imminent threat of war.
But there are many countries that the Convention doesn’t reach, and Amnesty International’s Review of the Death Penalty Worldwide makes shocking reading. Although, according to Amnesty, 102 countries had completely abolished the death penalty by the end of last year, there are still many parts of the world where Tom Jones’ prisoner could be awaiting execution, The Christmas story with the ensuing flight into Egypt tells of homeless and exile, and foretells death, so perhaps the Green Green Grass of Home was not such an inappropriate Christmas Number One in 1966 after all, and sadly, would not be inappropriate today either.