Alan Turing: is a pardon the best way to excuse our crime against him?

Alan_Turing_photoThe campaign to pardon Alan Turing, the father of computer science who was convicted for acts of homosexuality in 1952, troubles me.

I take as a given the good intentions of those Lib Dems such as Lord (John) Sharkey and Manchester MP John Leech who have led the calls in parliament. But I am struck by Matthew Parris’s words in today’s Times:

Why only Turing? Many, many tens of thousands of gay men have been convicted for behaviour that was once against the law. Tens of thousands of careers, reputations and lives have been ruined. Innumerable suicides have resulted. As late as the 1980s, as an MP, I was campaigning against the Metropolitan Police’s use of “pretty policemen” to entrap and prosecute gay men. I encountered tragic cases — lives wrecked. The law was wrong but the law was the law. There is everything to regret, nothing to pardon and nothing to be done.

To the question “Why only Turing?” there is only one honest answer: because of what he achieved in his life. But are we saying that pardoning a crime which should never have been a crime is open only to those who’ve done remarkable things in their life? Is that really upholding the principle of equality before the law?

In 2009 Gordon Brown issued a public apology on behalf of the Government for the appalling treatment meted out to Alan Turing:

While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time, and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair, and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted, as he was convicted, under homophobic laws, were treated terribly.

Personally I agree with Matt Ridley, who points out:

By rights, Turing should be pardoning the Government, but that’s not possible.

And suggests a practical alternative:

… don’t let the pardon get in the way of recognising one of the great scientific geniuses of all time. Put Alan Turing on banknotes or a plinth in Trafalgar Square.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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12 Comments

  • From a practical perspective, I’d rather the government effectively wrote a blank cheque to make Bletchley Park a fitting monument to the work of Turing and others.

    Regardless of whether Turing gets a pardon or not, history has already been written, hence, it is more important that we remember and continue to hold in high esteem a mathematical genius who happened to be gay at the wrong time.

  • Graham Evans 24th Jul '13 - 7:07pm

    I think the whole concept of being pardoned is essentially wrong, in that the State is not acknowledging that the law itself was unjust, but merely stating that the person convicted should not suffer the normal consequences of conviction. While relatively rare for legislation to be made retrospective, it was done in the case of Burmah Oil in 1965, and much earlier when the offspring to John of Gaunt by his mistress (later wife) were retrospectively legitimised. Rather than simply repealing laws which are by modern standards considered unjust, perhaps Parliament should do so retrospectively, thereby automatically quashing any convictions which arose from such unjust laws. I suspect that the real motive for continuing with the archaic concept of pardon is the fear by governments that those convicted unjustly, or their descendants, will seek compensation. Indeed it was precisely to avoid having to pay Burmah Oil compensation that the Labour Government in 1965 passed the War Damage Act , which retroactively exempted the Crown from liability.

  • A pardon for Turing is the start of the issue, not the end.

    It personalises the shameful way gay men were treated. Once Turing is pardoned, the case for doing so universally is an easier, more logical step. It may not be neatest, or the right, way to go about it but it is a practical way of doing so.

    Turing on a bank note is an excellent idea. Who can say he doesn’t merit it?

  • This is gesture politics, yes – but sometimes gestures carry great meaning and can have significant impact.

  • @Mary Reid – fully agree!

  • Richard Wingfield 24th Jul '13 - 9:48pm

    I find myself less conflicted on this. There is another answer to the “Why only Turing?” question. Some of the people convicted under section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 (the provision under which Turing was criminalised) would be found guilty of offences today, for example because the other partner was under 16 or because the offence took place in public or in a lavatory. To work out which of those should be pardoned (or have their convictions disregarded) and which should not would require going through 49,000 sets of records. This is not a good use of government time or resources. By pardoning Alan Turing, the government would be acknowledging that his conviction – and the convictions of many, many other men – was unfair and unjust. It would be a symbol, a gesture, yes, but Alan Turing’s pardon would be a symbolic pardon for all men in his situation.

    There are of course many other ways to preserve Turing’s memory – teaching children in schools of his achievements and role in WWII, putting him on a bank note, and so on – but pardoning him would allow many people, including his family, to feel that justice had been served, and would harm no-one. I’m right behind Lord Starkey and John Leech on this one.

  • William Jones 25th Jul '13 - 7:51am

    As one of the well meaning people behind the campaign. I started the government petition that received 37K signatures to pardon Alan Turing.

    Now that the prospect of having “Turing on the Tenner” is closed. I hope that the ‘gesture’ of a posthumous pardon does happen so that it paves the way for posthumous pardons to the 49,000 others who also suffered like Turing just for being Gay, Lesbian or Transgender.

    Personally, I believe this pardon is far more powerful than the gesture of putting “Turing on the Tenner”.

  • I agree with ATF, and of course with William Jones. The Government should announce a pardon for Turing, and that the previous law was wrong and that it will also pardon the 49,000 who suffered under it. It will no doubt take some time to investigate every one of those cases, especially if they are to identify current relatives to inform of the decision. But start with Turing.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 26th Jul '13 - 8:24am

    “This is gesture politics, yes – but sometimes gestures carry great meaning and can have significant impact”

    As a former police officer I have personal knowledge and experience from small period in the 1980’s of witnessing many men arrested, charged and convicted for Gross Indecency and Indecent Assault at or near public conveniences. Less than 5% these men had no a prior criminal record (none for any sexual offences), and in the main lived heterosexual, and married lives in small communities.

    What will happen to these men, will their convictions be overturned? Many were humiliated in public and their lives virtually or actually destroyed. And remember thousands of men will have been subject to this injustice across the country for decades, for Gross Indecency continued up until the introduction of The Sexual Offences Act 2003. This contentious offence was eventually removed and replaced by the offence of “indecent exposure”, Which itself is another questionable offence. It should be further noted that as a result of the manner in which these arrests took place, they are now been deemed as entrapment, for without the active involvement of the police few offences would have occurred.

    It is with the greatest shame that I have to admit that although even then I saw nothing wrong with same sex relationships, I did nothing to stop this injustice happening, worse than that I actually went along with it. This period in my policing career has been a constant reminder to me ever since a ‘Niemöller’ and “wake up and smell the coffee” incident in the 90’s, and demonstrates to me that it is easier to follow the crowd and support injustice, rather than to stand up for what is right.

    I am a good person, but as Edmund Burke once stated “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”

    In my opinion, there should be a total pardon, but how do we make sure that we do not revictimise those men and their families who were subjected to such miscarriages of justice? I also believe that there should be an acknowledgement that these past discriminatory laws were ethically and morally wrong.

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