Why is the Alan Turing pardon so narrow?


2:36 pm - May 10th 2013

by Robert Sharp    


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Alan Turing

The Alan Turing Statutory Pardon Bill has been published on the Houses of Parliament website.

Turing was a mathematician and philosopher who cracked the Nazi Enigma code and invented electronic computing. He was also a homosexual, and was convicted of “Gross indecency between men” in 1952. As a result he lost his security clearance, was subjected to chemical castration, and committed suicide when he was only 42.

This statutory pardon seeks to atone for the Government’s appalling treatment of a national hero.

Nevertheless, the idea of such a narrow pardon worries me a little.

The implication seems to be that Turing gets a pardon because he achieved so much. But that should not be how the law and justice works.

What about all those under-achievers and ordinary men who were convicted under the same illiberal and unjust law? Why do they not get a pardon too?

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About the author
Robert Sharp designed the Liberal Conspiracy site. He is Head of Campaigns at English PEN, a blogger, and a founder of digital design company Fifty Nine Productions. For more of this sort of thing, visit Rob's eponymous blog or follow him on Twitter @robertsharp59. All posts here are written in a personal capacity, obviously.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Equality ,Westminster

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Reader comments


According to a recent Private Eye there are still men living with historical convictions for “gross indecency…”

Unfortunately I am not currently able to find them

@2

Spot on. Until this kind of rubbish stops and historic injustices are recognised and corrected then any pardon will seem simply to be weasel words.

4. Shatterface

Does seem rather bizarre that the Govt mare only just getting around to pardoning him when Manchester has had a statue of him for years.

Anyway, agree: all those convicted of any unjust law should be pardoned – and compensated – as soon as the law is repealed.

The injustice was not just to Alan Turing but also to Oscar Wilde, Peter Wildeblood and many others who were prosecuted on similar counts and convicted.

Maynard Keynes was also gay and could have been prosecuted but wasn’t for reasons that are obscure. By accounts, friends were pleased and relieved to learn of his intended marriage with Lydia Lopokova. Also, by accounts, members of the Bloomsbury group tended to look down on her although she was a devoted wife to Keynes:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/non_fictionreviews/3672942/The-unlikely-Lydia-Lopokova.html

How far back are we going to we go in history and what sort of “crimes” are we going to pardon?

As a history PHD student who has done a lot of work on this, i can think of two reasons why a blanket pardon might be problematic

1) Before 1967 the law on homosexual offences made no distinction between consenting acts between adults and non consensual acts/acts with children. This not only means that the thousands of men convicted of buggery and gross indecency include some people we would now consider rapists and paedophiles, but that there isn’t necessarily anything in the historical record which indicates which is which.

2) Cottaging, which accounts for a large amount, probably the majority, of historical offences is still illegal under UK law. I don’t have time to check the 2003 Sexual Offences Act right now, but I think a public toilet is actually only place where sexual activity is entirely illegal (otherwise ‘public’ is decided by context rather than location). Now, there’s controversy over whether that should still be part of the law, technically it applies to heterosexuals but it’s used almost entirely against gay men, and of course cottaging in the 1950s when you might have had no other possible outlet is different from doing it today in the age of Grindr. But the government might well balk at issuing pardons for historical acts which people are still being convicted of today.

This might not be the government’s reasoning, but I don’t think either side can say it’s an entirely simple issue.

@6

I’ll treat your point as being honest rather than dimly reactionary. The admission that the treatment of homosexuality has been wrong in the recent past reflects the fact that it remains a relevant issue today. Nobody is seriously arguing that Cathar Gnostics should be posthumously re-admitted into the Church of Rome because most of us are grown ups.

I choose that example because it was the most obscure I could think of. Perhaps witches are more applicable? They aren’t being persecuted today, have not been for a very long time and have not contributed quite as much to the freedoms and culture we enjoy today as gay men and women have.

9. Richard Carey

Has Sir Walter Ralegh been pardoned? If not, he bloody well should be – an outrageous travesty of justice, that was.

10. the a&e charge nurse

David E’s tweet is genius but I would still pick him up on one point.

Legislation back then reflected generalised antipathy toward gay men, an antipathy driven in no small measure by the main religious doctrines – the weaker the religious influence the greater the potential for a more open, and rational society.

We all know god has a big problem with sex – if only he’d come from a more open sort of family.

How far back should we go? Well first consult the records to find out who is the currently oldest person alive, and use their birth date as the floor.
Any objections?

If Keynes being gay is a powerful reason for rejecting mainstream keynesian economics with its policy option of fiscal demand management, we need to be rather cautious about Alan Turing, what with him being one of the founding fathers of electronic computers.

Just consider the consequences. PC sales have already been hit. And with Turing’s fundamental contribution to breaking Germany’s Enigma code, we might have to re-run WW2 without his contribution.

13. Derek Hattons Tailor

I think anyone can have a conviction scrubbed if the law under which you were convicted has been repealed, or the offence has been “decriminalised”. It’s not an automatic process though, you have to write to the Chief Constable of the force that convicted you and ask, and they are not necessarily obliged to do it. Obviously if you are Jo Bloggs you won’t get a public pardon from the govt. Anyone who’s ever been done for questioning the sexuality of a Police horse can probably give you more detail……..

Ferguson might go some way towards restoring his tattered academic reputation by reworking the histories of WW2 showing how the breaking of the Enigma code, as the result of gay Alan Turing’s contributions to decryption and the theory of computing, made a difference.

Isn’t this just a pointless exercise? I mean, it’s not like Alan Turing can benefit from it.

Chris @ 14 – Its the symbolism of the thing, which is a valid reason to act when, as other commenters have said, gay people are still vilified in the UK and actively persecuted and prosecuted in other parts of the world.

On the Niall Ferguson issue, he has since retracted and apologised for his stupid comments about Keynes.

15

“On the Niall Ferguson issue, he has since retracted and apologised for his stupid comments about Keynes.”

Of course, he has. The damage to Ferguson’s academic reputation would have been too great if he hadn’t apologised. But enough was said to rally homophobes who know precious little about economics to the government’s cause.

That is how these dog whistles work. That Keynes was gay was well documented in the biography by DE Moggridge: Maynard Keynes (1995). Anyone familiar with the history of the keynesian revolution knew that Keynes had gay relationships before he married Lydia Lopokova. What matters is the economics, not whether Keynes was gay or not. As best as I can tell, the government and law enforcement agencies were more tolerant in the 1920s and 1930s than in the 1950s. The reverberations from prosecutions of the Bloomsbury group would have been too much. I suspect the defection of Guy Burgess tipped the see-saw.

@ 6: We should go back at least as far as victims of past injustice are still alive.

17

The list will include some public figures who might prefer that the past is not raked over half a century after the events which led to their convictions.


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