‘Justice for Alan Turing’ looks at the petition to pardon Turing for ‘gross indecency’, as well as the social and historical significance of the pardon.
The official apology to Alan Turing, delivered on the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, was a politically safe move, and all-round good PR for a government shaken by the credit crunch crisis. There were no legal ramifications, and the unjust fact that convictions under the law of “gross indecency” held sway over thousands of men still living was not addressed. The proposed pardon for Alan Turing signalled the start of a material change.
In November 2011, Manchester resident William Jones launched the petition to pardon Turing.
We ask the HM Government to grant a pardon to Alan Turing for the conviction of ‘gross indecency’. In 1952, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ with another man and was forced to undergo so-called ‘organo-therapy’ – chemical castration. Two years later, he killed himself with cyanide, aged just 41. Alan Turing was driven to a terrible despair and early death by the nation he’d done so much to save. This remains a shame on the UK government and UK history. A pardon can go to some way to healing this damage. It may act as an apology to many of the other gay men, not as well known as Alan Turing, who were subjected to these laws.
A pardon, in other words, would send a message that would have political ramifications above and beyond the question of Turing’s conviction.
The idea of a pardon, indeed the very language of a pardon, is problematic, and consequently potential supporters opposed it. John Graham-Cumming, the man who started the petition that called for an apology in 2009, did not get behind the petition, partly on the grounds that “a pardon for simply Turing would be unjust to the other gay men who suffered under the law”. The best that can be said of this is that it’s a politically naïve statement. Turing is the perfect candidate to spearhead a campaign against an unjust law and as a result create a precedent.
To get caught up in the semantics of the word “pardon” is to miss the point and the opportunity offered. Practical, everyday politics is not about being high-minded. It is about compromise.
The Minister of State for the Ministry of Justice, Lord McNally, was even wider of the mark when he dismissed the pardon in February 2012. His statement was tactlessly delivered in the first week of LGBT History Month, no less.
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.
This is simply bureaucratic filibustering. In 2006 the government pardoned World War I soldiers who were executed for desertion, an act that the soldiers knew was against the law at the time. McNally’s argument here an ill-thought one. Nevertheless, it captured the tone of the opposition.
Writing in the Manchester Evening News, columnist Paul Taylor rehearsed a worn out line about the implications of a pardon.
If we issue a posthumous pardon for Alan Turing, must we also pardon the ‘witches’ drowned on the ducking stool, the churchmen burned at the stake for heresy, the two beheaded wives of Henry VIII, or, more particularly, the three men who were hung for buggery after being arrested in 1806 at a pub in Warrington which was a gay meeting place?
In response, the Manchester Withington MP John Leech, a supporter of the petition to pardon Turing right from the start, clarified the argument in a letter to the paper.
We cannot hide behind a veil of martyrdom and argue that it’s “better that we shoulder the shame” because, for the most part, we have not been exposed to the effects that the different convictions and punishments have had on families all over the country. This campaign will have a positive impact just as the decision to posthumously pardoned WWI deserters in 2006 did. I cannot live under the pretence of making a martyr of ourselves or, more importantly of the thousands like Alan Turing and their families.
The article asks whether pardons for drowned witches, the beheaded wives of Henry VIII and burned churchmen should follow suit. I would respond with the point that these events happened almost 500 years ago. There is a clear and important distinction to make between what happened in history and events that happened in living memory.
This is not a campaign that looks back at what happened to one person, but a campaign that looks forward to a world without prejudice or discrimination.
The implications of the pardon, as John Leech rightly argues, are about the way we live now. The small-minded toying with irrelevant historical parallels is beside the point.
All that said, the status of men who still have a criminal record for pre-1967 convictions for “gross indecency”, pre-1994 convictions for sex under the age of 21, and pre-2000 convictions for sex under the age of 18, changed with the introduction of the Protection of Freedoms Act in May 2012. A man will be able to apply to have his conviction expunged from the record. This does not apply to the dead, however, and so it has no effect on Turing’s criminal record. In March, 2012, Lord Sharkey tabled an amendment to the ‘Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill 2010-12’ that would have allowed relatives of men so convicted to apply to have the conviction disregarded. This amendment was rejected by the presiding Minister.
The difference between a pardon and disregarded conviction is an instructive one, as John Leech noted in his blog in March.
So what is a disregarded conviction? Basically it wipes the slate clean. It means that the records are changed so that it is as though the person did not commit the offence, wasn’t charged for it, wasn’t prosecuted and wasn’t sentenced. It has more legal power than a pardon working retrospectively to eliminate the offence from all legal records.
With a pardon, the conviction would still stand, but with a disregarded conviction it would be expunged from the records. The Protection of Freedoms Act, it could be argued, validates the idea of a posthumous disregarded conviction.
It is of course impossible to right the wrong, and it is inconceivable to eradicate it from Turing’s history. This is the official Turing Centenary, nevertheless, and so it is the ideal time to take a stand against obsolete ideas about homosexuality, and to honour one of the most important and pivotal figures in British history.
2012 is Alan Turing Year. Polari Magazine marks the centenary of his birth in a series of articles about his life, his work, and his legacy.
Read Part Two in this series of articles here.
Alan Mathison Turing was born on 23 June, 1912. He was a mathematician, cryptanalyst and the father of computer science. His pioneering work in the 1930s cracked the Nazi’s Enigma codes in World War II, and led to the invention of the modern computer. Turing died in 1954 of cyanide poisoning, two years after he was convicted for homosexual activity and branded a security risk.