Why not pardon Turing?

I couldn’t resist a quick comment or two on the government’s decision not to issue a posthumous pardon to Alan Turing, in the matter of his his criminal conviction for homosexuality, recently announced by Lord McNally. This is Lord McNally’s reply to a question asked by Lord Sharkey:

The question of granting a posthumous pardon to Mr Turing was considered by the previous Government in 2009.

As a result of the previous campaign, the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an unequivocal posthumous apology to Mr Turing on behalf of the Government, describing his treatment as “horrifying” and “utterly unfair”. Mr Brown said the country owed him a huge debt. This apology was also shown at the end of the Channel 4 documentary celebrating Mr Turing’s life and achievements which was broadcast on 21 November 2011.

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. 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.

In other words he is using the argument that Turing was properly convicted of behaviour that was considered an offence at the time so that conviction should not be negated.

This argument is entirely specious. A pardon is an act of clemency or forgiveness, exercised under the royal prerogative whenever advised by the government. It is not the mechanism for overturning wrongful convictions, so the observation that this conviction was lawful at the time is a red herring. Moreover, in what I consider to be an entirely analogous situation, all soldiers convicted and executed for cowardice in World War I actually received pardons in 2006. Their actions were also considered punishable at the time. This sets a clear precedent. Why is the Turing case logically different?

The answer to that is that if Turing were to receive a pardon, why should all the other gay people convicted of the criminal offence of being homosexual not also receive pardons? Why does it matter logically in this case that Turing was a brilliant mathematician who made immense contributions to the Allied effort during World War II? What about those gay men who were prevented from joining the services because of their sexuality? Why should one’s brilliance or eminence in a given field lead one to be treated differently under the law? Wouldn’t that just be saying “yes, he was gay, which is a problem, but we’ll forgive him because he made up for it in other ways”?

I think the government’s primary motivation for denying a pardon in this case is in fact the argument I just gave: that they should then have to pardon everyone convicted of homosexuality…

Of course you might ask in that case why it is that people are campaigning for a pardon for Turing in particular? Why not campaign for a universal pardon? I admit that it’s slightly illogical to do so, but it’s a question of pragmatism. Arguing the case for Turing in particular provides a focus which hopefully will lead to a wider resolution of the issue.

Asking for a posthumous pardon isn’t asking for very much, but I suspect the government is more worried about those people still alive who were convicted of homosexuality before 1967, which is when such acts were decriminalized. The case for denying pardons in this situation, when pardons were granted in the case of the executed WWI troops, therefore rests entirely on the possibility that there may be some pesky people who were convicted of homosexuality in the past but who unfortunately, unlike Turing, are not yet dead.

That’s the message this decision sends from the government to gay people.

19 Responses to “Why not pardon Turing?”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Surely the government’s logic is not just about pre-1967 convictions for homosexual behaviour but about EVERY change in the law? If someone gets convicted of speeding and next day the speed limit is raised on that stretch of road, can the person convicted demand a pardon? Or, if the limit is reduced, why not prosecute those caught on camera the day before the change running at the old limit? Etcetera…

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t think the argument can be extended to every change in the law or indeed that anyone can ever *demand* a pardon. A pardon is by definition a discretionary act. In this case – and in the case of the executed soldiers – the basis for a pardon is that the law was conceptually wrong. For example, the age of consent for homosexual acts was recently reduced from 21 to 18. I wouldn’t argue that people convicted under the old rule should be pardoned, but would argue that those for whom consent was denied entirely should be.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I’m sure that lawyers will approve of any scheme which allows petitions or appeals on behalf of the dead – on legal aid, of course.

  2. And what on earth would the problem be with pardoning everyone, alive or dead, who was convicted under laws that by our modern moral standards are bigoted and offensive? I cannot begin to imagine. The government’s attempt to justify their stance just makes no sense, particularly given that, as you say, it stands in direct contradiction to what happened with the soldiers shot for disciplinary offences in the First World War.

    • If everyone were pardoned, would that impose any costs on the government? Would the living pardoned be eligible for some sort of reparations, for instance? If so, then I can imagine the government not wanting to do it. They’d still be wrong, of course — if there are costs to righting a gross injustice, they should pay those costs — but at least there’d be some reason. If not, then I can’t see any reason to resist pardoning everyone who was wronged.

    • telescoper Says:

      Granting a pardon is not an admission of liability for anything so I don’t think it incurs a legal cost. It would require relevant people to be traced and for HM The Queen to be mobilized to produce the necessary pardons, but otherwise being pardoned is in no way equivalent to, say, winning an appeal which can open the way to a suit for damages. It’s purely an act of forgiveness.

      • That’s what I thought. I’m pretty sure that that’s how it would work under US law, but my knowledge of UK law, which comes mostly from Dickens, isn’t adequate to address such questions. Anyway, to repeat, even if there were costs, the government should still do right by those it wronged.

        (My outsider’s impression is that you all are much closer to justice and equality for gay people than we are in the US, but unfortunately that’s setting the bar quite low.)

      • Are there any reasonably high-level politicians in the US (members of congress, members of the cabinet, Supreme-Court justices) who are known to be gay? Would this be conceivable?

      • telescoper Says:


        That’s an interesting viewpoint, but I’m not sure I agree. Same-sex marriage, for example, is still some way off in the UK although civil partnerships are recognized. I get the feeling that there are more high-profile gay politicians in the UK (on both sides of politics). Probably that’s because religion plays a negligible role in British politics, unlike in the USA.

        Being a creature from a bygone era myself I’d say that attitudes to homosexuality have changed beyond all recognition in the UK over the last 30 years. When I was a lad we all looked at America as leading the way on gay rights, but that’s not the case now. Many European countries are way ahead of us, of course.


      • Phillip — There are a few members of Congress. The most prominent one, Barney Frank, represents my parents’ district and is retiring this year. He was outed in the 1980s in what was then a major scandal. (In truth, I believe that he had done something unethical involving using his office to get special treatment for his partner, but of course the scandal blew up far more than it would have if his partner had been a woman.)

        Peter — I don’t know that I can defend my statement comparing our two countries, since of course I know much more about one than the other. We do have marriage equality in six states (about to be seven), but most of the benefits of marriage attach at the federal level, and we’re very far from having even domestic partnership benefits, let alone full marriage equality, at the federal level. I think my impression is based largely on the fact that one of our major political parties does an enormous amount of demonization of LGBT people. My impression (which could be wrong) is that that sort of overt hatemongering is less evident over there.

        Attitudes in the US have changed enormously for the better in my adult lifetime, I’m pleased to say. And the variation in attitudes by age is very strong: even fairly conservative young people are quite likely to believe in full civil equality. So I’m confident that the good guys will win here, if only actuarially.

      • One addendum: I should add that we’re far from having federal marriage equality in the US, *unless* the Supreme Court issues a decision mandating it in the case that’s currently heading its way. I think that a sweeping pro-equality decision is unlikely to come from the current Court, but it’s not impossible. (A more likely outcome, from what I’ve read, would be that the Court upholds the lower-court ruling but interprets it narrowly to apply only to California.)

  3. There have been a few blog posts and even newspaper articles about this case but none that I have seen have been quite so forthright in coming to the point – so thanks for the clear argument.

    I can’t help but agree with you. I don’t like the way some people seem to be arguing for Turing especially, perhaps as some sort of concession for his brilliance in other fields, but as you say, this is just pragmatic.

    • Albert Zijlstra Says:

      Every case needs its picture child. But Alan Turing is a strong case not because he was brilliant, but because the UK owes him a great deal. In these days where we are judged on ‘impact’ , Alan Turing would have done well. I remember how difficult it was to get companies to fund a statue of him (none did, not even the company with that logo) – attitudes die hard.

      I now work in the Alan Turing building. I guess it is an interesting thought that my office is named after a convicted criminal. But I would be very happy to give that up!

  4. “Moreover, in what I consider to be an entirely analogous situation, all soldiers convicted and executed for cowardice in World War actually received pardons in 2006.”

    World War I, right?

  5. Very thought provoking as ever, more discussion on pardons from about 34:45 in

  6. “The answer to that is that if Turing were to receive a pardon, why should all the other gay people convicted of the criminal offence of being homosexual not also receive pardons?”

    Most (all?) countries had anti-homosexual (or at least anti-male-homosexual) legislation until quite recently (and it is still on the books and enforced in many places, sometimes punishable by death). Recently, Germany passed a law not pardoning but overturning the convictions of all affected by a similar law, and paying compensation to those still alive. Symbolic in some sense, yes, but sometimes symbolism is good.

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