Britain's digital warrior Alan Turing saved the nation by breaking Nazi Germany's ciphers⎯and into the bargain he gave us the fundamental principles of the modern computer and much else besides.
Turing deserves a statue in central London, alongside Britain's other war heroes. Instead, he was arrested for having consensual sex with another man in his own home and convicted under anti-gay legislation dating from 1885. It was the same law that victimized Irish poet Oscar Wilde and 75,000 other gay men. Unlike Wilde, who was cruelly given two years hard labour, Turing stayed out of prison but was sentenced instead to inhumane medical punishment. His body was flooded with female hormones for 12 months, affecting his libido and causing him to grow breasts.
Lord Sharkey's Private Member's Bill to pardon Turing for his 'crime' passed successfully through the House of Lords at the end of October. Its fate now rests with the House of Commons. John Leech, Lib-Dem MP for Manchester Withington, and a long-standing supporter of Lord Sharkey's Bill, is sponsoring it in the Commons. The Bill is slated for its first Commons debate on Friday, November 29.
However, the Bill's successful passage through Parliament is by no means certain. When the Lords passed it on to the Commons, Lord Tebbit warned that the Bill could set a 'dangerous precedent'.
The legal situation surrounding the Bill is labyrinthine. If Turing were still alive today, he could himself apply to have his conviction disregarded under the 2012 Protection of Freedoms Act. But only currently living victims of the 1885 anti-gay law, which remained in force until 1967, can have their convictions disregarded under the Protection of Freedoms Act.
Lord Sharkey, an eminent businessman and one-time student of Turing's student Robin Gandy, says his Bill to pardon Turing could be a first step toward extending the Protection of Freedoms Act to cover now dead victims of the unjust 1885 legislation.
The Bill's greatest enemy is time. In the House of Commons, Friday mornings are reserved for Private Members' Bills, and the Alan Turing (Statutory Pardon) Bill is at the time of writing the sixth of a list of eight Bills to be debated during the morning of the 29th. If the debates on other bills were to soak up the allotted time, the Pardon Bill would miss its turn, and would not necessarily be rescheduled in Parliament's current session.
Time is also a weapon that any opponents of the Bill could use, simply by prolonging a debate about the pardon until no opportunity is left for a vote⎯in which case the Bill again falls off the agenda. Opposition might stem from the 'Why only Turing?' objection, or, like Lord Tebbit, opponents might see the Bill as setting an undesirable precedent. As the Bill was waved on from the Lords last month, Lord Tebbit warned gravely: 'I hope that we will never seek to extend the logic of the Bill to posthumously convict men of crimes for acts that were not criminal when they were committed'.
This is hardly a telling objection to the Bill, however, since the Bill clearly sets no precedent for the retrospective criminalisation of actions now past, and not even for the retrospective decriminalisation of past actions. The pardon would not magically alter the status of an act from something that was a crime at the time to something that was not a crime at the time.
On the other hand, despite the Bill's potential to attract objections, it may enjoy a smooth passage through the Commons, as it did in the Lords, and may wind up on Britain's statute book well before Turing's 102nd birthday in 2014. But with MPs free to respond to the Bill as conscience dictates, there is no predicting the outcome.
In his short lifetime, Turing's profound achievements brought him all too little recognition. A pardon would be a powerful symbol, and another boost to his burgeoning public reputation. Yet while the coming debate is important, there are also other more concrete things that can be done to ensure Turing and his work receive adequate public recognition.
An excellent suggestion, made in a recent letter to The Times by J. M. Carder, is that the Royal Society should introduce a Turing Medal, to be awarded annually for outstanding achievements in computing. [The Times, 24 July 2013] In the United States, the prestigious Association for Computing Machinery already offers an annual Turing Award, regarded by many as the 'Nobel Prize of Computing'