Alan Turing, one of the 20th Century’s greatest scientists, was given a royal pardon today.
That sentence might make some sense had he been a serially reckless driver, or was responsible for the creation of a large subterranean death ray for his personal use. But no, the pardon was required because Turing was convicted of homosexuality and handed a criminal record by the government in 1952. He was chemically castrated and publicly humiliated. Two years later he was found dead, aged 41.
Turing’s treatment by the state was breathtaking because that state owed him so much. He gave the intellectual edge to Britain during World War II through his work in the Bletchley Park codebreaking team. He wrote papers that placed the foundation stones of artificial intelligence and computer science. He got an OBE. He made GCHQ, Deep Blue and Lolcats possible. And for having a consenting relationship with another man, he got handed a Hobson’s choice of imprisonment or injections. For a psychologically troubled mind, the level of persecution was too much.
Has that state absolved itself through this stuffy piece of benevolence? Of course not. Turing has been dead for sixty years, and did not appear to be a man for gestures anyway. His legacy is admired the world over, without anyone considering the blemish on his record to be the fault of him but that of a repressed, reactionary society that was terrified of Soviet wiles turning British agents. So is this pardon of any value at all, given that it ignores the 50,000 men and women who were convicted under the same laws?
Perhaps it is. There’s some value – I think – in showing the last bastions of prejudice that even the Establishment is moving on, albeit clumsily. You can hear them already, trolling away on the rabid message boards, the Have Your Says, the post-cheese Christmas discussions, the Daily Mail comments. It’s a slippery slope so it is, they say, if we’re pardoning things that were actual crimes then, do we just go ahead and pardon all sexual offenders from the 1950s shall we? And isn’t this all commie-loving, leftist, PC, wishy-washy apologism anyway? And why are we forgetting that God said, very clearly mark you, that homosexuality is a great big sin? And why must we change stuff? Change anything at all, when it’s all so clearly ok?
This pardon matters only to those who dislike the fact that it forces them out of their narrow minds and to judge a great man on his great virtues. It forces them to acknowledge that his sexuality is a patent irrelevance to his capacity to making a lasting and profound contribution to the world. And for making their hidebound position a little more uncomfortable, I think it was worth it.
- Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing receives posthumous royal pardon (standard.co.uk)