The conviction stands. Why no pardon for hero Alan Turing?
Saturday 23rd June 2012 would have been the one hundredth birthday of mathematician Alan Turing. You might have spotted the commemorative Google doodle of a Turing Machine, forerunner for modern computer algorithms and just one of the many things that made him famous. It was while working with code breakers at Bletchley Park that Turing developed techniques for cracking German ciphers. By hastening an end to the war in this way Turing theoretically saved millions of lives, plus he’s also considered the father of Artificial Intelligence. His efforts were not without accolade –he was awarded an OBE in 1945.
Sadly, what happened to Turing later in life is a dark testimony to the unenlightened times in which he lived. In 1952 Turing’s house was broken into and naturally he went to the police. During the investigation it came to light that Turing had been involved in a relationship with another man and the burglary investigation was dropped in favour of what the police considered to be the more serious crime of homosexuality. To avoid imprisonment Turing accepted the punishment of chemical castration. The effects of this process and the stress of his conviction almost certainly lead to his suicide just two years later.
In February of this year the government were handed a petition to pardon Turing. The Justice Minister Lord McNally dismissed the motion in the House of Lords on the following grounds:
“The law at the time required a prosecution and, as such, long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times.”
In essence he refused a pardon for Alan Turing on the basis that you cannot change the past.
As a historian, I find this thinking deeply flawed. The Justice Minister makes the fundamental mistake of separating the past and the present into two separate zones, as though they had no impact on each other: it happened, it can’t be changed, so there’s nothing we can do about it. That is simply not how it works. If he were really to consider “historical context” the Minister would see that the petition to pardon Turing is part of an ongoing struggle against discrimination and therefore his decision has very real, current ramifications.
Our society has come a long way since Turing’s conviction; homosexuality is no longer a crime in the UK. In fact discriminating against somebody on the grounds of their sexual orientation is illegal. It has been widely recognized that the law under which Turing was convicted was wrong and yet the government chooses to uphold the conviction. It may not be a “return to those times” but to give precedence to a bigoted law over a wartime hero with an unjust criminal record is certainly a step backwards.
Perhaps it seems somewhat redundant to argue for the pardon of a man who is long dead and has no family with emotional interest in the case. However, the refusal to pardon Turing challenges important principles. Surely any person convicted in the past under an unjust and immoral law deserves a pardon. Alan Turing makes this case more poignant because he is a recognized hero whose conviction and coercion into taking damaging hormones played no small part in his tragic death. Can the Justice Minister honestly call his decision to refuse the proposed pardon justice?
The online petition continues to grow and is available the following address:
It will be resubmitted for consideration on 23/11/2012