Pardoning Alan Turing is a pointless exercise
Ben Summerskill, The Observer
Happily, in recent weeks, the House of Lords has put itself convincingly on the right side of history by overwhelmingly supporting gay marriage. So what might a revising chamber that has proved rather unexpectedly – even to itself – that it has become determinedly 21st century do next?
On Friday, peers debated whether Alan Turing should be pardoned. Turing was convicted of gross indecency with another adult in 1952. The argument is seductive. This brilliant man helped crack Hitler’s Enigma codes, thus shortening the Second World War by up to two years. Hundreds of thousands of lives were probably saved as a consequence.
Lords were told that a pardon for Turing would recognise the “esteem in which he is now held”. Baroness Trumpington, the formidable 90-year-old who worked at Bletchley Park at the same time as Turing, agreed. Interestingly, Lady Trumpington is a veteran opponent of legislative equality for gay people. But I do trust she felt very slightly better after having voiced her support. In 1952, the apparatchiks of the British establishment – from police and politicians to doctors and judges – also knew full well about the esteem in which Turing was held. Yet they still forced him to take female hormones as an alternative to going to prison. This imposition is described less politely, when despots do it, as “chemical castration”. Turing committed suicide by eating a cyanide-poisoned apple two years later.
The 1940s and 1950s were a shabby, shameful era in Britain’s history. During the war, thousands of gay servicemen had their sexuality quietly overlooked by commanding officers. Army psychologists, my grandfather among them, were told to turn a blind eye if an officer made a private admission of homosexuality. However, these heroes were then returned to a nation where simply having a loving private life led almost automatically to prison, unless an obliging Metropolitan police officer was happy to be blackmailed while he kept your little secret.
That’s why, on balance, perhaps we shouldn’t be pardoning Alan Turing at all. It’s quite proper we’ve started writing off convictions for people who are still alive for trivial matters that would no longer be criminal offences. (Oddly, I’ve only met a single senior police officer who admits to having been involved in such prosecutions, even though 16- and 17-year-olds were still being charged with having consenting gay sex as recently as 1998.) However, it’s already too late for the countless thousands of innocents, not as eminent as Turing, who had their lives ruined as well. And perhaps rather pointless.
A more proper apologia might be to ensure that Turing’s achievements, and his treatment by the nation that benefited, are included in every pupil’s school curriculum. The 55% of gay pupils in our secondary schools who were homophobically bullied in the last 12 months might derive lasting reassurance from that.
No one doubts the good faith of peers from all parties and none who have now discovered the importance of equal treatment for Britain’s 3.7 million gay people. But it may be more therapeutic for them, rather than helpful to Alan Turing, to be offering good wishes at this stage.
[image via Flickr user Photoverlam’s photo stream, Creative Commons licensed]