In 1954 he committed suicide. He was forty-one years old.
Yesterday, news broke that Justice Minister Lord McNally had dismissed an online petition to grant Alan Turing a posthumous pardon. The petition had amassed over twenty-three thousand signatures; but the motion was dismissed in the House of Lords, with McNally saying that it was ‘not considered appropriate’ as Turing was ‘properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence’.
There are many, many things wrong with this.
Firstly – and forgive my lack of law jargon, but this is the product of some judicious googling and seems to be fairly accurate – in the UK, official pardons are completely separate from the miscarriage of justice system; they are about ‘moral innocence’. In other words, they’re totally symbolic – especially in a case like this, in which the pardon would be granted posthumously. Therefore, we might expect, it would make no difference whether or not Turing was ‘properly convicted’; if we claim that he does not deserve to be pardoned, we are making the claim that he was morally guilty. And that implies some interesting things about the value systems of our government.
This is a man, let’s not forget, whose contributions not only to the wider worlds of mathematics and computing but also to the country itself cannot be overestimated. During the Second World War, he played a vital role in decoding German communications from Bletchley Park, Britain’s codebreaking centre. In denying him a pardon, the government are implicitly making the claim that the work he did during his lifetime is somehow less important to his place in history than the sexuality which he did not choose. This is a moral judgement. It is a moral judgement which, apparently, hasn’t changed since the 1950s. And, I hope, you don’t need me to tell you how wrong that is.
Secondly, in 1954, the poor decisions of a UK government killed a man, a man who had worked incredibly hard to save the nation which condemned him. That is a blot on us all; it is a shame that we must all live with. Granting Alan Turing a pardon would not dissolve this shame, no, just as apologising for an action doesn’t automatically solve the problem. But a pardon would act as an apology; it would be a symbolic atonement for the sins committed against not only Turing, but also other gay men, by the British government in the past. It would be a way to officially recognise the wrong decision that was made in 1952. It would be a way to officially recognise how the UK justice system let so many people down.
Thirdly, this is something which the government could easily grant. It costs nothing, after all. Twenty-three thousand people want it to happen. It would be a simple way to strike a symbolic blow for equality. Yet they won’t. However they dress it up, I can’t think of a single way to read it which isn’t as a deliberate and malicious snub. And that worries me. It should worry us all.
Why? It’s simple. If this government won’t make a stand for equality when it costs them nothing to do so, what will happen when a situation arises in which doing the right thing does cost something? Because that day will come, and if we’ve learnt anything today it’s that we can’t trust this government to make the right choice.
Alan Turing died because the nation he had worked so hard to benefit turned its back upon him. The least the nation can do is be ashamed of itself.