Vince Cable writes… Remembering Alan Turing

IMG_0923Today sees the general release of the film The Imitation Game, a dramatic portrayal of the life and work of Alan Turing.

By all accounts the film, with the leading role played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is set to be a great success. Oscars are already being talked about.

But why am I drawing attention to this specific film?

It would be tempting in my ministerial role to merely talk about the economic importance of films made in Britain and Britain’s film industry as a whole. And indeed it is a creative industry that generates many skilled and well paid jobs. I could even highlight how filming in the UK has knock on benefits, for example film locations often provide a real boost to an area’s tourism.

Yet, for the moment and especially this week, I wish to say more about the man the film is about.

I should begin by declaring a specific constituency interest. For many people Alan Turing is associated with Manchester but he was also for an important period of time a resident in my Twickenham constituency. Between 1945 and 1948 he lived in Hampton and worked at the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington.

When I spoke last Sunday at the Remembrance Day Service at Twickenham I was proud to single him out, and make the point that our war heroes are not just those at the battlefield. I am also pleased that in Twickenham we will soon have a new school that will permanently commemorate his incredible life.

Alan Turing and his team at Bletchley Park are credited with cracking the German Enigma Machine, providing vital intelligence for the Allies. It is said that their work contributed to the shortening of the war by two years, possibly saving millions of lives. Turing’s biographer, Dr Andrew Hodges, says that once Turing had discovered how to break the Enigma machine codes, it was like having a daily newspaper that was full of nothing but detailed information on the activities of German U-boats.

Churchill declared that Turing made the single biggest contribution to the Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany.

However, the brilliance of Alan Turing was demonstrated after the war as well.

Working first in Teddington and then from 1949 at Manchester University he developed a body of work that helped to form the basis for the field of artificial intelligence.

Alan Turing is thought by many to be the father of modern computing and only last year the Royal Society, declared his Universal Machine to be the greatest British innovation of the past 100 years.

Yet one cannot examine the life of Alan Turing without remembering his early death. In 1952 he was arrested and tried for homosexuality, which was then a criminal offence. To avoid a prison sentence he agreed to undergo experimental hormone therapy – he was injected with female hormones to reduce his sex drive and was chemically castrated.

And then on the 7th June 1954 Alan Turing died, almost certainly by suicide – he was just 41 years of age.

Alan Turing’s life reveals a part of our history where prejudice and blatant bigotry were enshrined in law against gay men.

However his death was not just a personal tragedy and horrific injustice, it was also a loss of talent and brilliance in mathematics and computing. All of us would have benefited further from his talents, if he had lived his life in full. If he had worked for twenty or thirty more years his further discoveries would have enriched us all.

Sixty years on from Alan Turing’s premature death, and in the week we have seen Remembrance Day parades, we should remember all who played a critical role in defending our country from tyranny. The fact that some people gave so much to their country but were in return treated in such an appalling manner should humble us all.

We should equally also remember that bigotry and discrimination leads to a terrible waste of talent for society as a whole.

I hope everyone gets the chance to see The Imitation Game. It sounds like a film not to be missed this Autumn.

It also has lessons we should never forget.

* Sir Vince Cable is MP for Twickenham and was leader of the Liberal Democrats from 2017 until 2019.

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9 Comments

  • David Faggiani 14th Nov '14 - 12:38pm

    Very well said. RIP Alan Turing.

  • Fantastic piece on a British Hero treated horribly by the establishment.

  • <3 striking exactly the right tone, here, Vince. Thank you.

  • @Dave Page
    Quite right. Turing’s achievements were plenty remarkable enough – there is no need to give him credit for things he was not responsible for. This seems to happen a lot with Turing for some reason. I remember once an LDV article quoted Baroness Trumpington (who actually worked at Bletchley during the war) as crediting Turing with the creation of Colossus, when it was actually Tommy Flowers.

    I’m also a little suspicious that Vince’s Churchill quote may be a factoid. Wikipedia’s source for this quote is a BBC News article, which itself is unsourced. After a few minutes scouring the web, all mentions of this seem to lead back to Wikipedia and the BBC. Anyone have an authoritative source for this quote?

  • I really liked Vince’s piece.

    To those concerned about the greatest detail of historical accuracy (which I do respect) I would add that the film The Immitation Game does in fact have a passing reference to the role of the Polish before WW2, but quite frankly what was achieved before the war and then at Bletchley Park was of a totally different order due to the Germans changing the cipher every day. I hope this link and further pages are useful:

    https://www.bletchleypark.org.uk/content/hist/worldwartwo/enigma.rhtm

    For further information about the real significance of Turing in helping to break the naval Enigma I hope this is useful as well:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/threecounties/content/articles/2009/09/07/captain_jerry_roberts_feature.shtml

  • Richard Underhill 22nd Sep '16 - 9:59am

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