Alan Turing's pardon is simply not enough

A statue of Turing at Bletchley Park, by Stephen Kettle Image credit: Elliot Brown

Alan Turing, widely regarded as the father of modern computing worked on cracking the Nazis’ ‘Enigma’ code. His work was crucial to bringing an end to the Second World War. Yet, 9 years after the Allied victory to which his role was so central, Alan Turing committed suicide. What happened between these two events is nothing short of national disgrace.

Turing was a genius - he was also gay. In 1952 Turing was arrested for ‘gross indecency’ after being found to be in a relationship with another man. To avoid prison, Turing was forced to undergo a dehumanising and humiliating process of ‘chemical castration’. He is believed to have committed suicide by cyanide poisoning 2 years later.

Any action to recognise the disgusting nature of the Turing’s persecution faced at the hands of the very state he helped save should be welcomed. As such the Royal Pardon offered to Turing last week appears at first glance to offer long deserved justice. At a time when nations like Russia and India are mercilessly persecuting their citizens for their sexuality, the Royal Pardon of Alan Turing sends a message to the world; homophobia must never be tolerated.

However such a pardon shouldn’t be welcomed because Turing helped win a war – rather should be welcomed because Turing did no wrong. Turing’s posthumous pardoning and the reasoning given by the government obscure the distinction.

Announcing the decision, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling (a man who has no problem with B&B owners discriminating against would-be guests on the grounds of sexuality) described it as a “fitting tribute” to an “exceptional man with a brilliant mind”. Turing was indeed both exceptional and brilliant. The Pardon, however, should never be a ‘tribute’ to a wartime hero; it should be recognition of a wrong – a wrong perpetrated by the state. It should not matter whether Turing was the father of modern computing or a textile worker from Doncaster. If Turing botched the code breaking at Bletchley Park, if he couldn’t even crack an egg let alone the Enigma code, it would no more legitimise the treatment he faced.

An estimated 75,000 were prosecuted under that same law – many, like Turing, had their lives utterly destroyed. The celebrated historian E.P. Thompson once made it his aim to ‘rescue’ nameless and unknown ordinary men and women of the past from what he referred to as “the enormous condescension of posterity”. Most people do not know the names of any of the other 75,000 people prosecuted for their sexuality. They may not have achieved incredible things like Turing. But they were unjustly persecuted just like he was and we must not let posterity condescend them and ignore justice.

In 2012 the Protection of Freedoms Act was passed, which allows those convicted for homosexuality to apply to have their criminal record removed. The legal commentator David Allen Green suggested that this could occur automatically without an application, and apply to the deceased as well as the living. This would surely be a better way to atone for a shameful episode in our nation’s history. We owe it to Alan Turing, and to the 75,000 others unjustly persecuted just like he was.

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