Stephen Hawking and other scientific luminaries have called on David Cameron to formally pardon Alan Turing. The great mathematician was convicted of homosexuality (or “gross indecency”, as the statute books had it) in 1952, and killed himself with poison two years later.
A few things are worth noting. First, there’s no doubt that Turing was a hero. He was a key figure at Bletchley Park, the British codebreaking operation in the Second World War, which was responsible for deciphering the German Enigma code – the breakthrough is credited with shortening the war significantly. Second, he was a pioneer in computing and artificial intelligence: so much of a pioneer that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to call him, alongside John von Neumann, the father of modern computing. He first proposed, and proved the possibility of, a machine that could in theory solve any calculable function. He is also behind the concept of the “Turing test”, the only real practical way of determining whether a machine can think.
Equally, there is no doubt that he was hideously, brutally mistreated. He was forced to choose, for his “crime” which was nothing of the sort, between a spell in jail and a course of treatment with female hormones, aka chemical castration. He chose the latter, and, broken and humiliated, apparently ate an apple laced with cyanide. He was treated like an animal by a nation that owed him everything. If anyone deserves redress, it is Alan Turing.
But will pardoning him achieve that redress? Obviously not. He’s dead. He no longer cares whether his name is in some six-decade-old list of convictions. It won’t even restore his reputation. All that stuff I said above, the hero stuff, the father of modern computing stuff, the genius codebreaker war-hero stuff: it’s all known already. So’s the cruelty with which he was treated (which, perhaps ironically, would have been applauded by the Nazis whom he helped to defeat). Pardoning him will make no difference either to Turing or his memory. The only thing it will do, as Tony Blair’s fatuous sorrow over the Irish potato famine or the slave trade did, is burnish the self-image of the faux-magnanimous pardoner.
If Mr Cameron wants to do something worthwhile, he can perhaps pardon, retrospectively, every single person who was ever convicted of gross indecency or sodomy or whatever for the “offence” of being homosexual, going back to Oscar Wilde and before. That at least would show that this whole nasty episode in British history, of punishing people for who they are, is decently buried. Don’t pardon Turing because he was a hero and a genius. Pardon him, and everyone else, because there should never have been a crime in the first place.