Hope for Lib Dem Sharkey’s bill to pardon Alan Turing

Alan Turing and meLast Friday I made my first ever visit to Manchester, where I did the traditional thing of posing to have my photograph taken with the statue of Alan Turing.

Yesterday, Liberal Democrat peer John Sharkey introduced his Bill to grant Turing a posthumous pardon. The World War 2 codebreaker was subject to appallingly cruel treatment – chemical castration and disgrace after being convicted for being gay. He killed himself two years after that.

The Government allowed men convicted of similar offences to have those convictions disregarded but that didn’t help those who, like Turing, had since died. There are 49,000 of them – that’s about 80% of the population of the town where I live. Thinking of it on that way makes you realise the scale of what happened, of how many people were actually affected.

John Sharkey’s Bill seeks to have Turing given a royal pardon. The Bill was given a second reading in the Lords yesterday and it appears that the Government has changed its mind. So long as it doesn’t take up too much parliamentary time – ie if nobody tables any amendments – it may well become law.

Proposing the Bill, John Sharkey said:

The Government know that Turing was a hero and a very great man. They acknowledge that he was cruelly treated. They must have seen the esteem in which he is held here and around the world.

There are two quotations which, for me, sum up Turing’s greatness and establish him as a British hero. The first is from Professor Jack Good, who was at Bletchley Park with Turing and who died last year at the age of 91. Professor Good said that,

“it was a good thing the authorities hadn’t known Turing was a homosexual during the war, because if they had, they would have fired him …. and we would have lost”.

The second quote is from the very distinguished Harvard professor Steve Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Professor Pinker says:

“It would be an exaggeration to say that the British mathematician Alan Turing explained the nature of logical and mathematical reasoning, invented the digital computer, solved the mind-body problem and saved Western Civilization. But it would not be much of an exaggeration”.

It is not too late for the Government to pardon Alan Turing. It is not too late for the Government to grant a disregard for all those gay men convicted under the dreadful Labouchère amendment and similar Acts. I hope that the Government are thinking very hard about doing both those things. But while they are thinking, Parliament can act. We can start by granting a pardon to Turing, and we can continue by finding a way to amend the Protection of Freedoms Act to extend the disregard to all who were treated as cruelly as Turing was simply for being gay.

For me, one of the most interesting parts of the debate was having 91 year old Conservative peer Baroness Trumpington recall her war time work at Bletchley Park. She was under no illusions about the effect of Turing’s work:

When I arrived at Bletchley in 1941, there were about 400 people. When I left, there were 6,000, including the Americans. The mansion, known to us as “the other place”, and never gone into, stood bare. None of the white buildings or other Nissen huts existed. Only the Nissen hut known as Hut 4 remained—and still does, although it is now a small bar. One did not wander around the buildings. One went to the room one worked in on shifts and, apart from a visit to the canteen, one did one’s work and was then transported to one’s billet. Thus one really met new or different people only in one’s transport to and from work. Unless asked by a senior member of the section to deliver a message, one remained in the same room year after year. The block I worked in was devoted to German naval codes. Only once was I asked to deliver a paper to Alan Turing, so although I knew that he had invented “Colossus”, which turned the war around in our favour, I cannot claim that I knew him. However, I am certain that but for his work we would have lost the war through starvation.

The Government’s change of heart is a good sign. Let’s hope that this Bill becomes law within the next few months. That is only the first step, though. The fight will continue to have the remainnig 48,999 men’s convictions disregarded.

As a postscript, I’ve been pointed to articles which suggest that Turing’s death might have been an accident and not suicide. It certainly seems that the Coroner made assumptions that aren’t backed by evidence.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Camilla with the code breakers
    Those that worked with Turing said he was a strange man.

  • So what if he was? What has that got to do with anything? Turing was a genius and saved all of our asses!

  • Great article Caron, though it is worth noting that there are many people who believe Turing did not kill himself and that it was in fact an accident.

    Regardless of the manner of his death, the fact remains that Turing stands as an example our country at its finest and worst. The way he, and other gay men, were treated was an abomination which we should never be allowed to forget.

    Turning’s genius and status as a man central to deafet of Nazism and the creation of the moden world, along with his many notable outstanding colleagues at Bletchley Park* (which, frankly, the government should fund so it can become the monument it rightly deserves), understandably makes him a figurehead for a movement, but it also brings to mind the men who suffered such a similar fate who are now almost lost to history for just living normal lives.

    For Turning a pardon can only be part of the process of expressing national regret and thanks. Turning deserves nothing less a statue in the heart of Whitehall. His achievements alone merit such a memorial, the way he was subsequently treated make it a necesssity – if Jan Smuts and Feild Marshall Haig have statues, can anyone seriously argue that Turning was a lesser figure in our nation’s history?

    *Also, fun to note that Bletchley Park had previously been the home of a Liberal MP. That Liberals today are playing a key role in the campaign for pardon for Turning is nicely fitting.

  • Patrick Smith 21st Jul '13 - 11:19am

    Anyone who has taken even a cursory glance in the direction of the plethora of books that tell about how the mathematical code Enigma breaking commitment and genius of Sir Alan Turing : who helped save thousands of lives in WW2.They will know that without the `golden eggs’, as described by Sir Winston Churchill, the Allies may well have suffered a massive set back in their relentless march to victory.

  • Ben Summerskill proves that he is the Dan Hodges of gay issues by opposing this measure (in The Guardian), just like he opposed gay marriage. The man has become a parody.

  • Note to self, do not post comments past midnight – you will only end up spelling Turing’s surname wrong three times. Apologies to all!

  • Tony Dawson 21st Jul '13 - 7:48pm

    The very idea of John Sharkey being a Lib Dem peer makes things stick in my crook. He was chair of the most useless General Election campaign ever. Followed by the even more useless ‘No to AV’ campaign.

    The sensible thing to do would be to grant a posthumous pardon to ALL the gays prosecuted under those awful laws.

  • Stuart Mitchell 21st Jul '13 - 10:12pm

    I guess since Baroness Trumpington is 91, she may be forgiven for forgetting that it was actually Tommy Flowers who invented Colossus, not Alan Turing.

    Turing is a great hero of mine, and I wish John Sharkey well with this. But I do get a little irritated sometimes when people try to give Turing sole credit for the work done at Bletchley, or even for winning the entire war, while overlooking other geniuses like Flowers. Turing was great enough not to require such hyperbole.

  • I agree with the posthumous pardon, but I do feel it should be extended to all others who were convicted.

  • Tony
    “The sensible thing to do would be to grant a posthumous pardon to ALL the gays prosecuted under those awful laws.”
    Attitudes to homosexuality were very different in years past. The basis of the 1967 Act is that what consenting adults do in private is their business. A lot of married men were convicted under the old laws.(married to women)
    There is a case for giving posthumous pardons but these are for cases where the convicted person was in fact innocent due to new evidence becming available for example.
    There seem to be moves for posthumous convictions as regards to other sexual offences due to the kind of witch hunt mentality that got people like Turing prosecuted in the first place.

  • “There is a case for giving posthumous pardons but these are for cases where the convicted person was in fact innocent due to new evidence becming available for example.”

    In that case the appropriate thing would be to quash the conviction, which is quite different from giving a pardon (which recognises that an offence took place but forgives the offender).

    I’m sure the Turing campaign is well intentioned but, when you think about it, giving someone preferential treatment in relation to a criminal offence just because they were an eminent scientist is about as illiberal as you can get. It would be much better to pardon everyone, regardless of their places in society.

  • david thorpe 24th Jul '13 - 1:38am

    strange is irrelavnt-becuase its not a criminal offnece!

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