Alan Turing – one of the most remarkable minds of the twentieth century; developer in the 1930s of the mathematical concept of a Universal Machine, the theoretical blueprint for the device on which you are reading this – has been pardoned for his 1952 conviction for ‘gross indecency between men’ (which is how, at the time, consensual gay sex was described in law).
I set out my principal reasons for disagreeing with the campaign to pardon Turing in the summer, and my opinions have not altered in the ensuing five months. I still think:
it is unfair to single out Turing for a pardon above the many other men who were convicted of the same “offence”;
it is likely to further distort his legacy, and that of his colleagues at Bletchley Park, by overplaying his personal contribution to the war effort and underplaying his personal contribution to computer science;
it is a fundamentally misguided attempt to “correct” history, to pretend that we can do right by a man who was driven to an early grave, when there is in reality nothing we can do to right the terrible wrong to which he was subjected.
My views did not prevail, of course – I never really expected they would – and Turing has been pardoned. It should be understood that this does not mean that he has been exonerated, as many people apparently believe. On the contrary, today’s announcement by the government means that his “guilt” has been explicitly and publicly confirmed.
Turing’s pardon has been granted under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy (which, like pretty much every royal power in the UK these days, is controlled and administered by the government, not by Elizabeth II herself). This prerogative allows the government to alter sentences handed down by the courts, but it does not allow them to set aside the judgement itself. In other words, by the means of today’s pardon the State has indicated that Turing ought not have been punished for his “crime” – but has also indicated that Turing’s act of consensual gay sex was, and will remain, a crime in the eyes of the State. Crucially, Turing’s criminal record is unaffected. He remains, in point of legal fact, a convict.
This always was the unavoidable consequence of issuing a pardon under English law. It is something that the advocates of a pardon seemed not to have grasped (perhaps because they were more familiar with the rather different Presidential Pardon in the USA which, if I’ve understood it right, allows the President not just to commute a sentence but to completely quash a conviction). Many seemed not to realise that, in calling for the State to pardon him, they were also calling for the State to confirm as a matter of public record that Turing was, is and always will be a convicted criminal in the eyes of the law.
Alan Turing thus finds himself in more-or-less the opposite position of those men who were convicted of the same offence, but are still alive. Still-living victims of the laws against consensual gay sex have been unsuccessful in their attempts to win a general pardon. But since 2012 they have been able to apply to be ‘treated for all purposes in law’ as if they had ‘not committed the offence, been charged with, or prosecuted for, the offence, been convicted of the offence, been sentenced for the offence, or been cautioned for the offence’ – to be held, in effect, completely innocent of any wrongdoing. Turing, in contrast, has received a pardon, but is still treated for all purposes in law as if he had committed an offence.
I suspect that, in many cases, this is not what the advocates of a pardon were actually seeking. My guess is that what they wanted was for Turing’s conviction to be expunged from his record. This could have been achieved – not only for Turing, but also for everyone in the same boat as him – by means of legislation which would have extended the 2012 scheme to cover those men who have died subsequent to their conviction (as was proposed by David Allen Green, among others). Unfortunately, by calling so vociferously for a pardon for Turing himself campaigners have undermined, perhaps fatally, the case for this more far-reaching and wide-reaching response to the injustices perpetrated against men who had sex with men.
It certainly seems that the UK government is keen to ensure that the pardon for Turing is not seen as having general applicability. In comments attributed to him in the official press release, the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling (who signed the pardon) stated that
A pardon from the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man.
You will note that Grayling does not see a pardon as Turing’s right, on the basis that any conviction for consensual sex between adults must now be seen as wholly unjust. On the contrary, Turing’s pardon is a ‘tribute’ that he only deserves because he was ‘an exceptional man’. In other words, the pardon is extended to Turing in recognition of his brilliance, not in recognition of the injustice he suffered. By this means it is made apparent that this is a one-off gesture, not something that will be extended to the tens of thousands or ordinary, unknown, unexceptional men who found themselves treated in the same shabby way by the laws of their own country.
Grayling’s – and the government’s – gesture here was in fact the very least they could do, given the groundswell of public opinion. Offering a pardon to the figurehead of the campaign, but doing nothing for the many others in the same position as him, was the cheapest possible way of buying off the campaign. Had Grayling not acted as he has today, the House of Commons would have in due course debated Turing, and all of these issues would have been aired and discussed, and some means of general redress might have been proposed and enacted.
The danger now is that the small gesture extended to this one man will persuade the public that the entire issue has now been addressed, and that as a result there will no longer be any significant pressure for the more complex legal moves needed to benefit the other victims of injustice. These are the many thousands of other men who found themselves arrested, convicted and punished for the victimless “crime” of expressing their love for each other physically, who stand now at risk of being dismissed from public consciousness despite nothing having been done for them. It would be a sad thing if, in the process of trying to ameliorate the injustice done to Alan Turing, we dismissed the equal injustice suffered by others just like him. At the very least, we should try to remember them. Them, and the many, many others who were never prosecuted, but lived small, crabbed lives as a result of the ever-present fear of prosecution.
Grayling’s statement is in fact a masterpiece of politician’s misdirection. At one point he’s quoted as saying
His [Turing’s] later life was overshadowed by his conviction for homosexual activity, a sentence we would now consider unjust and discriminatory
Note that the thing that ‘overshadowed’ Turing’s life was his ‘conviction for homosexual activity’, but supposedly the thing that we ‘now consider unjust and discriminatory’ is the sentence. Notice that? The way you’re being encouraged to think that the separate concepts of a conviction and a sentence are synonymous? A very useful little bit of confusion for a politician trying to direct attention away from the fact that today’s pardon remitted only his sentence, and left Turing’s ‘unjust and discriminatory’ conviction firmly in place.