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The Logic Behind Alan Turing’s Christmas Pardon

Alan Turing would have been well aware of the logical flaws, but there’s no doubt he would have welcomed his Royal Pardon, if it had arrived while he was still alive to benefit from it, instead of as a Christmas present, 60 years late.

Having been found guilty of “gross indecency” (ie homosexual acts), he lost his security clearance and was taken away from the code-breaking mathematical work he loved. The added insult of chemical castration was equally appalling.  The pardon comes as a belated response to a concerted campaign, one year after the centenary of his birth.

It’s not Turing that needs a pardon

But why a pardon? When the petition was presented in 2011, it was rejected – because pardons are normally granted when a person is innocent. Turing’s treatment was horrific and unjust, but he confessed to a crime under the laws of the time.

In fact, since his partner was under 21,Turing would have technically been breaking the law even after the Sexual Offences act of 1967, and right up till 1994, when the age of consent for homosexuals was lowered to 18.

Most people would agree that the law, not Turing, was morally at fault, the pardon has been granted under the Royal Prerogative, and in this area, the Queen has a perfect right to – if this is the right word – clear Turing’s name.

But a trickier question is, why Turing? The Astronomer Royal Lord Rees suggested a general pardon for everyone punished under the laws of the time. This might mean even more for those still alive.

A wider pardon?

Singling Turing out for a pardon seems wrong to some. Turing’s biographer Dr Andrew Hodges of Wadham College, Oxford, welcomed the “well intended and deeply felt campaign” to remedy Turing’s mistreatment, but told The Guardian:  “Unfortunately, I cannot feel that such a ‘pardon’ embodies any good legal principle. If anything, it suggests that a sufficiently valuable individual should be above the law which applies to everyone else.”

The campaign for a wider pardon – or amnesty, or apology – for others treated like Turing will continue, and rightly so. At a time when the clock is being turned backwards on gay rights in Russia and India, it would be a salutary reminder of Britain’s past brutality, and a welcome signal that anti-homosexual laws have no place in the modern world.

But if we want to understand how Turing came to be treated so harshly, we may come back to his wartime work, and post-war Britain’s attitudes to science and sexuality.

Benjamin Britten was Turing’s almost exact contemporary, his centenary was celebrated this year. He also broke the laws against homosexuality, and was tolerated – even celebrated – as Britain’s national composer. He was allowed to work with young boys at a time when homosexuality was considered identical to paedophilia.

Turing had a war record that Britten could never boast of, but that was a secret, and since he was not part of the establishment, he was exposed to the rough justice for lesser citizens. However, even those who knew of his war contributions seemed to forget it. He was taken off elite Government code work, because his homosexuality was seen as a risk.

It seems to us the obsessive secrecy of the intelligence services – currently such a hot issue – was a major contributor to his death and years of dishonour.

Did you know Turing tried out for the Olympics? Try our Turing Test!

Peter Judge

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

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