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Why Alan Turing's Pardon Matters

21/07/2013 23:37 BST | Updated 20/09/2013 10:12 BST
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Following the decision this week by the government to not oppose the Alan Turing Statutory Pardon Bill, it looks likely that the famous computer scientist will be given a full posthumous pardon by the end of the year.

Alan Turing was a pioneering computer scientist who worked as part of the secret project in the Second World War to crack the German naval code, known as Enigma. His development of algorithms was so ground-breaking that he is considered by many to be the father of computer science and artificial intelligence.

But Turing was also a gay man in a time when this was a crime. After the war, in 1952, Turing was prosecuted and convicted because of his sexuality. In an attempt to avoid serving a prison sentence, Turing agreed to chemical castration.

The mental as well as the physical effects were devastating. Turing committed suicide two years later, consuming an apple laced with cyanide.

The movement to obtain a full posthumous pardon for Alan Turing's conviction has been active for years. In 2009 Gordon Brown, the then-prime minister, offered an apology to Turing. Though Brown described Turing's treatment as "appalling", he stopped short of offering an official pardon.

A pardon for Turing was again requested in 2012. A group of leading scientists, including Stephen Hawking, wrote an open letter to the Daily Telegraph requesting a pardon. But the government refused, arguing that one was "not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence."

The movement was not dissuaded. Instead a Private Members Bill was introduced to push for a full pardon. Lord Sharkey, the Liberal Democrat peer who introduced the bill in the House of Lords, said that if the government was not going to act, parliament had to.

Sharkey argued that Turing's work may have shortened the war by two years and saved thousands of lives and that Parliament needed to make good, to apologise for his conviction, an offence "that now seems both cruel and absurd."

This week the government whip Lord Ahmad said that they would not block the bill. "No pardon can undo what was done to Alan Turing or indeed wipe out the facts of his appalling treatment" and that "parliament should be free to respond to this bill in whatever way its conscience dictates, in whatever way parliament so wills."

So, why the sudden change of heart from the government?

No doubt political expediency is playing a part.

There has been a lot of momentum behind this movement and for the government to have passed a gay marriage bill (a bill which bitterly divided the Conservative party) only to refuse a pardon to a national hero convicted of homosexuality places the government's position at odds with itself.

Alan Turing's profile is also once again on the rise. Books on his life, his work and his death have been making regular appearances on bestseller lists recently as interest in science and in Turing specifically becomes more widespread.

A high-profile film of the life and death of Alan Turing is also in the works. And with a cast including Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, it's a film that is likely to grab a lot of attention. No doubt the Government felt they could do without a successful film having text such as "The British Government still refuses, to this day, to give Alan Turing a pardon" on cinema screens around the world.

However it's impossible to overlook the fact that it's only Turing's name on the table here.

Only last year the coalition government refused to pardon the 49,000 men all convicted under the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, the act which recriminalized homosexuality. Turing's conviction came from this act but he was not the only famous person to suffer this. Oscar Wilde was also famously convicted under this act. But neither Wilde nor any of the thousands of other men convicted are being offered any pardon.

In the move to pardon Alan Turing, the debt this country owes to him for his work during World War II is referred to again and again. That Turing's ground-breaking work at Bletchley Park was instrumental in breaking the Enigma code is not in doubt. It was probably not an understatement when Lady Trumpington, in her speech in the Lords this week, said "I am certain that but for his work we would have lost the war through starvation."

What is becoming increasingly clear in this debate is that Turing's pardon is only on the table because he was a national hero. Lady Trumpington had voted against gay marriage only weeks before but has voted in favour of Turing's pardon. As she said, ""This is not about legal issues but about recognising the debt that this country owes to Alan Turing."

So homosexuality in a national hero is okay but probably not in anyone else. Should we be angry at the discrimination or relieved at the tentative steps?

Discrimination will always exist. The Equality Act of 2010 hasn't prevented discrimination in the workplace for women just as the Race Relations Act of 1976 didn't eradicate racial discrimination in the UK.

It's a shame that the government has had to be lobbied so hard into this action but Turing's posthumous pardon is an important step forward, just like the legalisation of gay marriage, in promoting tolerance.

Though it seems society is dictating to government that they need to become more tolerant, rather than the other way around, this pardon is important. We look to our government to lead and to legislate on the way society should behave. If we want our society to become more tolerant, the government has to show that it recognises that it needs to make good for the senseless pain inflicted from the 1885 act.

And who knows? Maybe one pardon will lead to others. As Lord Sharkey commented this week "It is not too late for the government to pardon Alan Turing. It is not too late for the government to grant a disregard for all those gay men convicted under the dreadful (legislation). I hope the government is thinking very hard about doing both of those things."

A pardon to Turing would move us one step closer to this.