Opinion: Alan Turing – If we pardon a hero, do we rewrite history?
It seems to have become almost an annual event, a bit like Wimbledon, or wondering when the hell summer’s finally going to arrive. Another year, another letter or petition calling for an apology or pardon for Alan Turing. The mathematical genius, codebreaker and computer pioneer has become the poster boy for the injustice of pre-Wolfenden laws about gay sex. Finally, it seems his time has come. Just as I thought, as I put the finishing touches to this column, The Guardian reported that the government will support a private member’s bill calling for a posthumous pardon for Turing’s 1952 conviction for gross indecency.
The recent vogue for petitions about Turing’s case began in 2009, when programmer John Graham-Cumming published a blog post calling for an apology from the government, noting that ‘Turing’s death should remind us how prejudice ruins and degrades’. Like most of its ilk, it was driven by a sense of injustice at the treatment of a man who, in the words of the inscription on his memorial statue in Manchester, was a ‘father of computer science, mathematician, logician [and] wartime codebreaker’. Graham-Cumming went on to post his call on the 10 Downing Street petitions site, picking up media attention, attracting 30,000 signatures, and prompting an official apology from Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Nothing wrong with that. Alan Turing is someone for whom the word ‘hero’ is really pretty inadequate. The fact that you’re reading this now is in no small measure due to him. In 1936 he published a description of a ‘universal machine’ – something that’s recognisably close to what we now call a computer. During World War II he was one of Bletchley Park’s most eminent code-breakers, developing the Bombe, a massive electro-mechanical device that could find, from over 17,500 possible combinations, the rotor settings used to encrypt a Nazi Enigma message. He’s regarded as one of the foremost figures among a group who are credited with shortening the war by as much as two years, saving millions of lives. After the war, he designed one of the first modern computers, and theorised about subjects way ahead of his time, devising a test for artificial intelligence that’s still in use today. On top of all this he was an exceptional long-distance runner, nearly qualifying for the British Olympic team in 1948. He’d be perfect gay-geek material as a character in any 21st-century sci-fi TV show – except that the script editor would tell you he was far too good to be true and you’d have to tone him down a bit.
Such an exceptional life deserves exceptional treatment, you might think. William Jones thought so, and in 2011 he launched another petition on the 10 Downing Street website, calling for a pardon for Turing’s conviction for gross indecency. This gathered more than 37,000 signatures, but the government’s spokesman Lord McNally issued a statement saying that ‘a posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence.’ In 2012, Lord Sharkey tried again with a private member’s bill in the House of Lords, which, until the government’s surprise announcement during its second reading a year later, seemed doomed to fail. At the end of the same year, a group of scientists including Stephen Hawking wrote to the Daily Telegraph, again calling for a pardon, saying ‘it is time his reputation was unblemished.’
Some held out hope – the QC Alex Bailin pointed to legal precedents, including the posthumous pardon granted to shell-shocked soldiers convicted of desertion in World War I. He noted that ‘it is perverse for the minister to refuse to pardon Turing for reasons which are diametrically opposed to the law which currently applies to living persons.’ But there were dissenting voices, notably the creator of the original petition that led to Gordon Brown’s formal apology. John Graham-Cumming wrote that he could not support the 2011 petition for a pardon, saying that ‘there’s really no argument that he simply broke the law,’ even though he agrees that the law in question was ‘awful’. I don’t buy that reasoning – the same could be said of the World War I deserters, yet no-one doubts the justice of their pardon. More tellingly, though, Graham-Cumming says that ‘a pardon for simply Turing would be unjust to the other gay men who suffered under the law.’ This is an argument with far more weight. Many of the calls to pardon Turing give the impression that he deserves it because of his contributions to computer science and the war effort. This isn’t justice. If the law was wrong, it was wrong for all 49,000 men (including Oscar Wilde) who suffered under it, regardless of how much or how little they gave to the world. Yet another petition, by Jonathan Bradfield, recognises this, calling for a pardon for everyone convicted of similar offences. The petition closes next month, but has garnered only 200-odd signatures – my own among them.
Some good has come from the light shone on those unjust, archaic laws by the attention given to Alan Turing, though. The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 means that anyone still living who was convicted of a gay sex offence that is no longer a crime can apply to have it ‘disregarded’, meaning that they are ‘to be treated for all purposes in law as if the person has not been convicted of the offence’.
Other things have changed for the better, too. In 1999, researching for an MA, I contacted the museum at Bletchley Park to ask if they made any mention of Turing’s sexuality. ‘I’m not sure that’s something we’d want to talk about,’ a prim-voiced lady told me, her lips almost audibly puckering with discomfort. Ten years later, Bletchley Park openly welcomed Gordon Brown’s apology, featuring it in a display about Turing.
With Lord Sharkey’s bill now having government support, Turing will soon be pardoned, and an injustice, symbolically at least, set right. And yet I’m forced to ask, should we be rewriting the histories of people who lived through less enlightened times? Just as you can’t libel the dead, so pardoning them can’t erase a wrong that was done by an unjust law. The facts of what they did won’t change, nor will the harsh treatment they received during their lifetimes. After his conviction, Turing was given a choice between prison or ‘chemical castration’ by taking a synthetic female hormone, stilboestrol. He chose the latter. By a supreme irony, the drug had been developed using some of Turing’s own computer work. Pardoning him won’t change any of that. It won’t make him more of a hero. It won’t make him less gay, or less wronged. Remembering Turing the hero we can also remember Turing the victim, along with thousands of others, and be thankful that, in part due to men like him, we live in far, far better times.
You can follow Richard Crowest on Twitter – @RichardCrowest