Alan Turing: is a pardon the best way to excuse our crime against him?

by Stephen Tall on July 24, 2013

Alan_Turing_photoThe campaign to pardon Alan Turing, the father of computer science who was convicted for acts of homosexuality in 1952, troubles me.

I take as a given the good intentions of those Lib Dems such as Lord (John) Sharkey and Manchester MP John Leech who have led the calls in parliament. But I am struck by Matthew Parris’s words in today’s Times:

Why only Turing? Many, many tens of thousands of gay men have been convicted for behaviour that was once against the law. Tens of thousands of careers, reputations and lives have been ruined. Innumerable suicides have resulted. As late as the 1980s, as an MP, I was campaigning against the Metropolitan Police’s use of “pretty policemen” to entrap and prosecute gay men. I encountered tragic cases — lives wrecked. The law was wrong but the law was the law. There is everything to regret, nothing to pardon and nothing to be done.

To the question “Why only Turing?” there is only one honest answer: because of what he achieved in his life. But are we saying that pardoning a crime which should never have been a crime is open only to those who’ve done remarkable things in their life? Is that really upholding the principle of equality before the law?

In 2009 Gordon Brown issued a public apology on behalf of the Government for the appalling treatment meted out to Alan Turing:

While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time, and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair, and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted, as he was convicted, under homophobic laws, were treated terribly.

Personally I agree with Matt Ridley, who points out:

By rights, Turing should be pardoning the Government, but that’s not possible.

And suggests a practical alternative:

… don’t let the pardon get in the way of recognising one of the great scientific geniuses of all time. Put Alan Turing on banknotes or a plinth in Trafalgar Square.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.