In 1996, the Conservative Home Secretary Michael Howard advised that two convicted drug smugglers, John Haase and Paul Bennett, receive a pardon. After 10 months locked up the pair turned informer and so were released. In 2006, a pardon was issued for all British soldiers executed for cowardice during World War I. 2012 is the centenary of Alan Turing, the mathematician whose work broke the Enigma codes in the Second World War, and invented the modern computer, a petition to pardon him for ‘gross indecency’ has been condemned by the justice minister Lord McNally. Referring to the government apology to Turing, issued by Gordon Brown, McNally said,
A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence. He would have known that his offence was against the law and that he would be prosecuted.
It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence which now seems both cruel and absurd-particularly poignant given his outstanding contribution to the war effort. However, the law at the time required a prosecution and, as such, long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times.
In 1952, Turing was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ with another man and was forced to undergo ‘organo-therapy’ – in other words, chemical castration. Two years later, he killed himself by eating an apple he had injected with cyanide. McNally’s self-righteous dismissal of a pardon is, like the pardon of Haase and Bennet, a cynical political move that has nothing to do with the law. It is bureaucratic filibustering. A pardon, such as that given to WWI soldiers, reflects an important change in society. It is an official stamp on that change. In his centenary, Turing is owed a debt of gratitude by this country. LGBT History Month is not the time to reject that change. It is an insult to the memory of Turing, and it is an insult to all LGBT people living in Britain today.
Note: I want to add this following an interesting point raised by a reader who argued that the idea of the pardon is complex, and looking at the psychiatric collusion would be a more profitable line of enquiry. I think the pardon is about presenting the issue with a human face. Following the line of the psychiatric collusion is important for understanding the issues in an historical framework. But that is not where most people live. The pardon is not about historical accuracy, per se; it is about the message that sends to the population at large (the ones that are paying any attention, that is) right now. I think that we should, in the end, follow both paths.