On Christmas Eve, Queen Elizabeth II granted a posthumous pardon to Second World War code-breaker, genius mathematician and one of the fathers of modern computing, Alan Turing.
The pardon, issued under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, came at the end of a long-fought campaign for redress for Turing’s treatment at the hands of the British establishment. Turing was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ – in other words, of being homosexual – in 1952. In lieu of a prison sentence, he underwent a process of chemical castration. Shamed and humiliated, he committed suicide two years later.
The campaign first grabbed headlines in 2009, when then UK prime minister Gordon Brown was moved to issue a cloying apology: ‘So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work, I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.’
Following this, 37,000 people signed a petition to have Turing officially pardoned. However, the response to the announcement last week has been notably muted, even among the campaign’s most passionate exponents. Gay-rights activist and long-term supporter of the Turing campaign, Peter Tatchell, has argued that Turing’s pardon doesn’t go far enough. Echoing the sentiments of several comment pieces, and one truly awful poem, Tatchell wrote a letter to the prime minister, David Cameron, urging him to extend pardons to the other 50,000 men – 15,000 of whom are still alive – who were convicted of similar offences related to homosexuality between 1885 and 2003, when the last of these laws was finally repealed. From Tatchell’s perspective, Turing’s pardon shouldn’t be the exception purely because he is a national hero.
Yet while the campaign itself, as well as Tatchell’s latest interjections, were certainly well-meaning, there are two crucial problems with extending a pardon to Turing – or, for that matter, anyone else previously convicted of similar crimes.