Useful Notes / The Two Certainties In Britain

Benjamin Franklin once said that the only things that were certain in life were death and taxes.

This article describes how they are dealt with in the UK.

(Although anyone who has ever actually lived in the UK knows that the two real certainties in Britain are tea and sarcasm. Well, either that, or tea and rain sometime that week.)note 


Black Cap Time- The Death Penalty

When an English judge sentenced someone to death in the UK, they would put a black cap on over their wig before pronouncing sentence. Although the death penalty has now been fully abolished in the UK (the last offences that carried it went in the late 1990s), the black caps remain for ceremonial purposes.

The last executions in the UK were on 13 August 1964 - the simultaneous hangings (at different prisons) of Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans for the murder of John West. The last death penalty sentence was handed down in 1973 to Liam Holden in Northern Ireland for the murder of a British soldier; it was commuted to life imprisonment. Holden was released in 1989 and in 2012 got the conviction quashed.

There were a number of ways to be executed in the UK throughout history:
  • Hanged, drawn and quartered (ended 1814): One of if not the harshest form(s) of the death penalty ever imposed in Britain—or anywhere else for that matter—it was reserved for treason cases and only applied to men (women were burned until that punishment was ended in 1790) who were commoners (noble traitors of both sexes were beheaded). The process was very, very, nasty:
    • Tied to a wooden hurdle and dragged to the execution place (this is why the practice is sometimes inaccurately called "drawn, hanged and quartered".
    • Hanged by the neck for a short time until almost dead.
    • Disembowelled and castrated while still alive (This is the actual "drawn" bit, referring to your innards being pulled out).
    • Your genitalia and entrails burnt before your eyes.
    • Beheaded, the rest of your body cut into four and the parts displayed publicly around the town, city or even country (many a head ended up on London Bridge).
  • The Short Drop: If you've seen a Robin Hood story (or indeed an American Western), this is the one they'll be using. The person is placed on a stool, the rope is hung around their neck and the stool is kicked away. The knot was usually placed behind the ear so that when the platform gives way, the person's neck is snapped, killing them instantly. If it was not done right, the other major cause of death was by slow strangulation, usually taking about three minutes. The person contorted considerably, hence the term "Hemp Fandango". There are cases of people who hanged fifteen to thirty minutes and survived.
  • The Long Drop: Standard method from the 1800s. The person to be hanged stood on a trap door, which dropped open. This was a rather exact process. Rope too short, Hemp Fandango. Rope too long, decapitation.
    • It was also, once executions went inside the prison, pretty quick - no last meal or final words. The condemned would be moved to a cell next to the room with the gallows in; the hidden wall linked the two. When the time came, the wall would open, the guards would enter and secure the prisoner's hands behind their back, led them to the gallows. Secure legs, hood over head, noose around, pull lever - done. The record from condemned cell to drop was seven seconds, set by Albert Pierrepoint (the most well-known hangman in British history, who 'did' some of the best known wartime and post-war executions, including 200 Nazi war criminals) on James Inglis in 1951.
      • An example of this process can be seen in the movie 10 Rillington Place, featuring a recreation of the real-life hanging of Timothy Lee Evans, (wrongfully) convicted of killing his wife and baby daughter - it was in fact his serial killer landlord, John Christie. Pierrepoint served as an uncredited technical advisor here; this was the first depiction of a modern hanging on British film.
  • Beheading: Speaking of decapitation... Person sticks head on platform, axe man swings axe, head comes off. That was the theory. Often the axe was blunt. Or the executioner was drunk. When you think about what he was actually doing, you'd understand why. This resulted in multiple blows to remove people's heads on quite a few occasions. On these occasions, often the spectators would become angry at the executioner. This was a fairly standard method of executing noblemen, especially those convicted of treason; since many noblemen were convicted of treason when their plotting failed, this one tends to show up a lot in the history books.
    • A guillotine nicknamed 'The Maiden' was used a few times in Scotland, and is now on display in an Edinburgh museum.
    • There were cases of a sword being used, such as with Anne Boleyn, Mary Stuart and other people of very high rank.
      • Mary Stuart's execution went wrong in many ways... the first blow missed her neck and struck the back of her head, at which point the queen's lips moved (her servants reported they thought she had whispered the words "Sweet Jesus"). The second blow severed the neck, all but a small bit of sinew which the executioner severed by using the axe as a saw. Afterward, the executioner held her head aloft and declared, "God save the Queen." (meaning Elizabeth I of course) At that moment, the auburn tresses in his hand came apart and the head fell to the ground, revealing that Mary was bald and had worn a wig.
  • Firing squad: Used by the Armed Forces. Most notable during World War I.
    • A famous case is that of John Byng, executed for "failing to do his utmost" at the Battle of Minorca in 1756. This was satirised by Voltaire in Candide, with the quote "in this country, it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others" ("pour encourager les autres"). Satire aside, some scholars have suggested it worked; after Byng's execution, Royal Navy officers became increasingly aggressive and adventurous, making riskier moves that often led to victories. After all, an officer who committed his ship(s) to combat against heavy odds could be killed in battle or yelled at once he got home if he lost, but win or lose he could hardly be accused of "failing to do his utmost", now could he?


Only in England and Wales (in Scotland, the Procurator Fiscal investigates this), these are held by the coroner when a sudden and unexplained death occurs i.e. a suspected murder, a death in police custody or in an industrial accident. A coroner or frequently a jury decide the circumstances of the death after listening to sworn statements, usually from police officers, pathologists etc.

These inquests do not establish criminal liability, but will guide further prosecutions if any and will frequently include recommendations for improvements to prevent things from happening again.

The common verdicts are:
  • Natural causes
  • Accidental death
  • Death by misadventure, a lawful act that ended up in a fatality, such a drunken person falling into the path of a train.
  • Lawful killing e.g. a Suicide by Cop
  • Unlawful killing i.e. murder, manslaughter or infanticide
  • Open verdict i.e. "we can't say for certain", frequently in cases where it looks like a suicide, but there was no note.
    • Or in the case of Jean Charles de Menezes, "the coroner won't let us say unlawful killing, but we sure can't call this lawful".
  • Narrative verdict: a summation of the facts of the death or death that does not attribute the cause to an individual

  • A number of Agatha Christie works feature an inquest returning a verdict of natural causes or suicide... and Poirot or Marple finding out it wasn't so.
  • Inquests are common in Silent Witness.


We'll cover benefits as well.

The British government now has a record level of debt, taken on to try and stimulate the economy, bail out the banks etc.

The UK's income tax is not especially interesting. In April 2008, the 10% starting rate was abolished, but the 22% basic rate was cut to 20%, with increased benefits for the majority former 10% payers, so they came out about even if not better off). This only actually applies they have children or are OA Ps, for about 5 million of the lowest paid workers they will actually be worse off. Of course, since Britain isn't the state of Pennsylvania, the actual lowest paid workers still earn within the 0% rate band; workers slightly richer than that will pay 20% only on their slice of income above the exemption threshold. The prospect of a Labour party backbench revolt has led to the government now raising the starting threshold by £600, and lowering the top threshold. In April 2010, the Tory - Liberal coalition announced that the personal allowance would be increased to £7,475 in the 2011-12 financial year.

The top rate is 45% (it used to be 80%+ as late as the '70s, and even 98%+ if 'unearned income' bonus tax was applied) for income over £150,000 or more with a higher rate of 40% for income over £37,400.

Value Added Tax (VAT) is the rough UK equivalent of sales tax, except that it is usually added straight onto the cost of each item that you see. Certain items, however, are not taxed at the standard 20% rate, being at 5% or none whatsover. These include children's clothing, biscuits and cakes (but not chocolate-covered biscuits, which led to a rather interesting court case on Jaffa Cakes, which went in the maker's favour)- all at 0% and nappies at 5%.
  • As an attempt to stimulate the economy, VAT was reduced to 15% from October 2008 until January 2010, which basically knocked three pence of something costing £1.60. The Conservative- Lib Dem Coalition then increased it to 20%

Road fuels (variant petrols, diesel; what Yanks call 'gasoline') is charged at a current rate of 50.35p per litre. VAT is added as well. In 2000, unleaded fuel had 80% of its value as tax. This led to six days of fuel protests in September 2000, which led to panic buying, schools starting to close and the only time in the 1997-2001 Parliament where the Conservatives were ahead in the polls.

There is also duty on cigarettes, alcohol and tobacco. Cigarette duty goes up frequently.

National Insurance, taken out of one's pay cheque, is somewhat of an equivalent to Social Security- and is over twenty years older. It's been criticised as a "stealth tax", due to frequent increases in it. Every resident in the UK has an NI number- it's used for the National Health Service as well.

There are local taxes, called Council Taxes, but were formerly (and still are called by many) "rates". These taxes, based on the value of your property, have been highly controversial in recent years, with large-scale increases and several cases of deliberate non-payment.

The United Kingdom has been often described as a Welfare State. This first started under the Liberal Government of 1906-1915, but hit the big time with the 1945-1951 Labour Government.

The most common one that you'll encounter is Jobseeker's Allowance, aka "the dole" or "the giro". In order to get this, you have to "sign on" every two weeks and actually look for work. The actual money is now transferred into bank accounts automatically, but people formerly queued to collect it in "the dole queue".

  • This was shown in the famous "Labour Isn't Working" 1979 election poster by the Conservatives.

Britain has a variety of tax and benefits forms- a number of corridors in the Doctor Who story "The Sunmakers" are named after them, e.g. the P45 form that is given by new employees to their employer (it gives the pay and tax figures from their previous job; it's possibly more famous as the form given by employers to recent ex-employees, and frequently functions as a metonym for dismissal). A now defunct form, UB40, has a reggae band named after it (they did a famous cover of "Red Red Wine").

Death and Taxes

And of course, Death and Taxes may be unavoidable, but they can also be one and the same...The Inheritance Tax!!note