Sydney Silverman, the son of a draper, was born in Liverpool on 8th October 1895. The family were very poor and two of the four children died before reaching adulthood. According to his biographer, Sarah McCabe: "The Silvermans were poor, but their poverty was not that of nineteenth-century industrial labour, for Myer Silverman was a pedlar or, more properly, a chapman, who lived as a small-time entrepreneur among his labouring fellows. He was never materially successful, probably because his sympathy for his impoverished customers did not allow him to enrich himself at their expense."
Silverman was extremely intelligent and obtained a scholarship to the Liverpool Institute, a leading grammar school in the city. This was followed by two further scholarships, one to the University of Liverpool and the other to Oxford University. However, he could not afford the expense of an Oxford scholarship and decided to take up the Liverpool offer and began his studies in English literature.
In 1916 the government introduced military conscription. Silverman, a pacifist, refused to join the British Army during the First World War. Influenced by the views of Bertrand Russell he registered as a conscientious objector, Silverman served several prison sentences for his beliefs. His son Paul later said: "His idea was that the workers of the world should unite: if the ordinary men on both sides refused to join the armies, the powers-that-be couldn't have had a war. But when war was declared everyone seemed to be infected with war fever and my father found himself very much in a minority."
Another son, Roger Silverman, commented: " Dad was taken to the military barracks but when he got there he wouldn't obey orders and so was arrested and court-martialled. In 1917 he was sentenced to two years of hard labour, and put in prison in Preston." He was later transferred to Wormwood Scrubs. Silverman's experiences in prison made him an advocate of penal reform.
After the war was over Silverman returned to University of Liverpool to complete his studies. In 1921 he successfully applied for a teaching post at the University of Helsinki. Silverman returned to England in 1925 and after further studies he eventually qualified as a solicitor in 1927. Over the next few years he developed a reputation as a solicitor who was willing to defend the interests of the poor in Liverpool. This included workmen's compensation claims and landlord-tenant disputes.
Silverman married Nancy Rubinstein, whose family had fled to Liverpool from the Russian pogroms in the late nineteenth century. Nancy, like her father, was a talented musician. Over the next few years the couple had three sons, Paul, Julian and Roger.
A member of the Labour Party, Silverman was elected as a city councillor in 1932. Soon afterwards he was adopted as the parliamentary candidate for Nelson and Colne and entered the House of Commons following the 1935 General Election. Silverman was one of the leading opponents of Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists. By 1935 Mosley was expressing strong anti-Semitic views and provocative marches through Jewish districts in London led to riots. Silverman was one of those who supported The passing of the 1936 Public Order Act that made the wearing of political uniforms and private armies illegal, using threatening and abusive words a criminal offence, and gave the Home Secretary the powers to ban marches.
Silverman retained his pacifists views until he discovered what was happening to the Jews in Nazi Germany. He therefore gave his full support to Britain's involvement in the Second World War. However, he was critical of Winston Churchill who promoted the policy of "unconditional surrender", and argued that carefully drafted peace aims would end the war more quickly.
When the Labour Party won the 1945 General Election Silverman was expected to be offered a post in the new government. However, Silverman held strong left-wing opinions and Clement Attlee decided against offering him a job. According to the historian, Ben Pimlott, there were other reasons for this decision. Silverman and Ian Mikardo were not given posts because they "belonged to the Chosen People, and he didn't think he wanted any more of them."
Over the next few years Silverman became highly critical of Ernest Bevin and his role as foreign secretary. He was particularly upset by his dealings with the Soviet Union. His biographer, Sarah McCabe, has argued: "Silverman fiercely criticized the foreign secretary's handling of relations with the Soviet Union, for he claimed that Bevin negotiated with Russia as if it were the Communist Party which, in Britain, was both feared and despised; instead he thought that the Soviet Union embodied a great people whose rights and dignity should be respected."
Silverman was a strong opponent of capital punishment and in 1948 managed to persuade the House of Commons to agree to a five year suspension of executions. However, this clause in the Criminal Justice Bill was defeated in the House of Lords. As a result Silverman founded the Campaign for the Abolition of the Death Penalty. In 1953 he published his book, Hanged and Innocent?
In November 1954 Silverman, Michael Foot, and three others were expelled from the Labour Party for opposing its nuclear defence policy. Three years later Silverman joined with Kingsley Martin, J. B. Priestley, Bertrand Russell, Fenner Brockway, Vera Brittain, James Cameron, Jennie Lee, Victor Gollancz, Richard Acland, A. J. P. Taylor, Canon John Collins and Michael Foot to form the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).
Silverman continued to campaign against capital punishment and in 1956 he introduced a private member's Bill for abolition. Once again it was defeated in the House of Lords. Silverman refused to be beaten and as Ian Mikardo has pointed out, Silverman was "incomparably courageous in espousing unpopular causes and facing down a hostile audience." Joseph Mallalieu was less complimentary: "Of all the House of Commons personalities, the most irritating is perhaps Mr Sydney Silverman. He is a cocky man, who throws his shoulders back as if to swell his chest, and thrusts his now bearded chin outward and upward, as if to give him inches. Indeed, he seems over-occupied with his own shortness."
In the 1964 General Election Silverman was returned to the House of Commons with an increased majority despite the fact that one of the candidates, although professedly Labour, made his platform the return of capital punishment for all murder. Harold Wilson, the new prime minister, was also an opponent of the death penalty and his Labour government agreed to introduce legislation to abandon capital punishment for five years. With overwhelming support in the Commons the Lords agreed to pass the measure.
His biographer, Sarah McCabe, has argued: "Silverman had a passion for justice and equality that kept him well to the left of his party, so that he did not commend himself to the establishment. Besides, he was not good at collective action; most of his battles he fought alone, for he enjoyed twisting the tails of his antagonists and might have been denied this enjoyment if he had worked with others." According to his colleague, Richard Crossman: "Silverman was vain, difficult and uncooperative. No one could get him to work in any kind of a group. All his life he remained an individualist back-bencher."
Sydney Silverman died in hospital in Hampstead on 9th February 1968.