UK declines to pardon Alan Turing for that whole "being gay" thing.

Widespread Celebrations But No Pardon For Turing

This month the House of Lords declined to grant a posthumous pardon for the crime of gross indecency for which he was convicted in 1952. Not only was he forced to undergo chemical castration, his security clearance was then withdrawn and he was unable to work for continue his work for GCHQ, Britain's intelligence agency. Turing committed suicide two year's later.

"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."

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26 Responses:

  1. Perry says:

    This is more complicated than you are making it out to be. See this blog post by the guy who lobbied to get the government apology for him in the first place. I'm not sure I completely agree with his reasoning, but many Turing supporters in the UK apparently thought a pardon was inappropriate and that the prior apology was the right thing.

  2. I will go on record and say pardoning the dead is much like baptizing dead: both are are kind of a day late and dollar short the intended. But I guess it makes the living feel better about themselves, so feh.

    • Pavel says:

      I think it's symbolically important in that a government admits - on paper - that it was wrong, that it's passed laws that were wrong, and implicitly, that it might be wrong in the future (or dare I say it - that it might be wrong RIGHT NOW!)

  3. 205guy says:

    I say, go for Godwin's: weren't the Jews properly rounded up for what at the time was a criminal offence?

    Charles, isn't there a difference between religious subjectiveness and the morally evolving laws of democratic nations? Yes, I realize many states would have to go back and retroactively pardon a lot of people. That would at least be a better argument.

    • To turn the Godwin around: would it be appropriate to pardon a single victim of the Holocaust because history proved they were a -good- Jew?

  4. Lloyd says:

    There's a large statue of Turing on the campus where I used to work. Occasionally, I'd see groups of girls rub up against the legs and get photographed. I'm pretty sure the statue of Turing wasn't interested.

  5. Notthebuddha says:

    weren't the Jews properly rounded up for what at the time was a criminal offence?

    No, there was nothing like criminal charges and due process involved, though their interment may have been lawful if one considered the previous legislation stripping Jews of their citizenship valid. The conditions and treatment of the internees were not legal at all.

    • Nick Lamb says:

      In fact, why are we talking about Jews? The Nazis rounded up and executed known homosexuals, a far more direct parallel. While Turing - after telling the police that he had committed a crime - faced a jury of his peers and then a severe prison sentence (which in the event he dodged by agreeing to hormone "treatment"), in occupied Europe if mere rumours that you were gay reached the wrong ears you could expect summary execution.

      The process which is happening to restore the good names of those still living seems like a much more sensible use of public resources than pardoning a famous dead man.

      • Abigail Brady says:

        And some gay people who had been placed in concentration camps under Paragraph 175 were made to serve out their sentences by the allies.

        The government has claimed that "the law at the time required a prosecution", which I doubt, as prosecutions are required to be in the public interest. Still, as you note, posthumous pardons seems a bit pointless when there are people who still have criminal records with "buggery" as an offence.

        • Nick Lamb says:

          The public interest test didn't exist at that time (the Attorney General talked about public interest considerations in the Commons in 1951, but it was many years before that idea crystallised into an actual rule). You can read the current incarnation of the public interest test online as part of the Code for Crown Prosecutors, but IMNSHO Turing's case doesn't distinguish itself adequately as an example where the CPS should have declined to prosecute if they had existed at that time (which they didn't by several decades).

          • Abigail Brady says:

            Hansard link, for reference In this we find the important quote:

            "It has never been the rule in this country—I hope it never will be—that suspected criminal offences must automatically be the subject of prosecution"

            which, regardless of whether or the public interest test per se existed in police solicitors' departments (and their predecessors) shows they had discretion not to charge.

      • Lloyd says:

        Will nobody think of the gay jews?

  6. Jon says:

    There's legal ramifications for pardoning someone when other people, still alive, may have been found guilty of the same crime. Even with posthumous cases, they could be opening a big litigation minefield for the estate of deceased folks.

    • tegeran says:

      It's the UK, parliamentary sovereignty applies. They could do the right thing if they wanted to without triggering undue burden on the legal system.

    • phuzz says:

      That's my take on it as well, that Turing does deserve to be exonerated, but so does everyone else convicted under the same law.

  7. How about an apology from the Church of England? Turing was chemically castrated and driven to suicide by the religious bigots of his day:

  8. Anonymous Coward says:

    Strangely, the real "money quote" was what JWZ declined to quote:

    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".

    Which frankly struck me as a rather satisfying explanation. This is taking the long view. In light of what the UK government did to Turing, for such frivolous reasons, to pardon him is an empty gesture to try and make those still alive today feel better about past mistakes. We cannot have that.

    Past mistakes must hurt, that we may be reminded of them and be vigilant for the day when they attempt to return under a different guise. One day, someone else is going to be in Alan Turing's position, for a different reason and we need to go "Hold on, this reminds me of something".

    And we need to memory to make us wince. We need to remember that what happened wasn't OK and if we go and do the same thing again, we won't be able to put that right, either.

    • jwz says:

      Which frankly struck me as a rather satisfying explanation.

      It strikes me as bullshit weaseling. "Well, it was the law" doesn't make it less wrong. Yes, it was wrong for a lot of other people too. "Well we can't pardon all of them!" Sure you can. Grow a spine.

      • Anonymous Coward says:

        We appear to be interpreting the same words very differently.

        What I take Lord McNally to be saying is that to pardon Turing is to create the false perception that "justice has been done" and the complacency that comes with it. No justice would be done by pardoning Turing. His life was irreparably ruined by an absurdly harsh punishment brought about by an absurd law. A pardon will not change that.

        His treatment was an ugly episode of the past that best serves the people of the future by remaining ugly. Turing can serve as a cautionary example of the many ways in which brilliant people are cut down in their prime because of petty bigotries. To attempt to soften his story by means of a posthumous pardon in the epilogue would seem, to some, an insulting and meaningless gesture.

        • 205guy says:

          How is unpardoned Turing a better, more hurtful, uglier, reminder than a pardoned Turing? One could argue that awarding the pardon will serve better to embed the idea of the mistake into the population and the lawmakers' minds. As jwz hints, pardoning all persecuted and convicted homosexuals will surely be a laborious, expensive, and public undertaking that will serve as a girm and painful reminder to all of how big a mistake it was to criminalize them in the first place.

          And I'm not taking this high road just for the UK. The US has a lot of skeletons in its own closets, so to speak.

          • Anonymous Coward says:

            That's rather a lot of money to throw away for the sake of making a point.

            I'm not sure I could feel good about approving of such a course of action when there are people here and now that could be helped with the resources that would be taken up by a theoretical mass pardoning.

            Still, as pro-pardon arguments go, that is one of the more persuasive I've heard.

  9. Perry says:

    I find it fascinating that in spite of the fact that the guy who campaigned successfully for an apology for Turing opposed a pardon and that I posted this right as the first comment above, that no one seems to have paid the least attention in the course of this discussion.

    Now, you may think JGC was wrong, but someone out there might at least pay attention to the fact that the campaigners most interested in lobbying the government in the UK didn't want this.

    • Nick Lamb says:

      The problem is that many of those writing comments either are Americans or have entirely swallowed the American system of pardons in which a pardon is something you give away like candy for the least reason or none at all. US Presidents routinely pardon campaign donors, friends, people they went to school with and so on. Nobody doubts these people did what they're accused of (although a US President can issue a pardon without waiting for a jury to actually find someone guilty) but the President lets them walk anyway.

      In the UK system, as has been explained (and disregarded) several times now, the pardon would assert that Turing didn't do what he was accused of -- a pardon would mean "Gays were bad, but Turing was good, so Turing wasn't gay". You'd hope that it's not hard to see why this was the Wrong Thing, but for someone used to corrupt politicians getting their friends sprung from jail every week obviously it's not going to make as much sense.

      • Ben Brockert says:

        Scene: An American and a Briton pass while traveling opposite directions through a door. The American accidentally brushes a cuff against the overcoat of the Briton.

        American: "Oh, pardon me."
        Briton: "No! Fuck off and die, you cunt."


        • Erik Einstoss says:

          As an Irishman I insist that you use "cunt" properly. "No! Fuck off and die, you fucking cunt."