William Joyce was the last person convicted for treason in the UK. Some have argued UK citizens returning from areas of Iraq and Syria controlled by so-called Islamic State (ISIS) should also be convicted of treason offences. There have been calls for reform of treason law in the UK to enable these convictions to take place. The Government announced in May 2020 it was considering such reforms, though there is no suggestion this will see a return to capital punishment.

Who was William Joyce?

William Joyce was born on 24 April 1906 in New York to immigrant parents. In 1909, the family travelled to Ireland. They then moved to England in 1922 following Irish partition.

William Joyce joined the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in 1933 and eventually became its deputy leader. Subsequently dismissed by the BUF’s founder, Oswald Mosley, he set up his own fascist organisation, the National Socialist League. Prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, Joyce travelled to Germany to work for the Nazis. Although not a British citizen, he lied to obtain a British passport, departing for Germany in August 1939.

Joyce began working for the German propaganda ministry, beginning radio broadcasts in September 1939. These broadcasts were received by a large number of households in the UK at the beginning of the war. A contemporary study by the BBC and the social research organisation Mass Observation found that, in January 1940, one out of every six adults was a regular listener to his broadcasts. This subsequently declined as the war continued. Joyce was known in the British press as “Lord Haw-Haw”, following an article by the Daily Express journalist Jonah Barrington. He described Joyce’s broadcasts as spoken in an “English of the haw, haw, dammit-get-out-of-my-way, variety”.

William Joyce’s conviction and execution

Joyce was captured in May 1945, following Germany’s surrender, attempting to escape Germany across the Danish border. He was convicted on 19  September 1945 and sentenced to death. The case eventually went to the House of Lords in December of that year, which maintained the conviction. Joyce was subsequently executed at Wandsworth prison on 3  January 1946. However, his conviction has been criticised on the grounds that he was not a British subject and only received a British passport through lying about his nationality.

Treason legislation today

Although Joyce is the last person to have been convicted and executed for treason, this offence remains law. It dates back to the Treason Act 1351. Although originally punishable by death, following the passing of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 the penalty would now be life imprisonment.

In 2008, the Law Commission described treason as “an ancient crime”, arguing the law was no longer suitable for combating modern threats to the UK, such as terrorism. More recently, in May 2019, the then Solicitor General, Robert Buckland, speaking in the House of Commons, described the relevant provisions concerning treason as “somewhat archaic”. He argued other offences offered better chances of conviction:

Modern criminal and terrorism offences are more likely to be applicable and provide sufficient sentencing power, and usually offer a better chance of a successful conviction.

Reforming treason law

On 20 May 2019, the then Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, announced in a speech that the Government would consider reforming the law of treason:

We have to ensure that we have the necessary powers to meet current and evolving threats to the UK, both domestically and overseas. […Officials will] examine treason laws to see whether the legislation could be updated to include British nationals who operate on behalf of a hostile nation.

The Government has yet to publish new proposals concerning treason law. In July 2020, Home Office minister James Brokenshire said this work was ongoing.

In 2018, the think tank Policy Exchange published a report that argued the offence of treason should be maintained in UK law and new treason legislation be introduced. It argued treason was based on the concept of the betrayal of one’s country. It said a new law was necessary to ensure the “fundamental wrong of betraying one’s country [was] properly addressed”. The report recommended this offence should be used to convict British subjects who had supported terrorist groups or who had travelled abroad to join groups fighting UK forces, such as ISIS. The report’s authors included Khalid Mahmood (Labour MP for Birmingham, Perry Barr) and Tom Tugendhat (Conservative MP for Tonbridge and Malling). Tom Tugendhat currently chairs the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. Khalid Mahmood is now a shadow Foreign Office minister.

However, the idea of introducing new legislation reforming the offence of treason has been criticised by other observers. These include Sir Geoffrey Bindman, visiting Professor of Law at University College London and London South Bank University. He argues existing laws are sufficient to address contemporary threats to the UK, including the threat of terrorism. Further, he argues that it is unclear how prosecuting for treason would increase the “deterrent or punitive effect” compared to existing offences.

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Image of William Joyce, “Lord Haw-Haw”, following his arrest in Germany by British officers in 1945, from the Imperial War Museum.