Turing: Calculated pardon

The Alan Turing case exposes both the flexibility of the political establishment and its hypocrisy, argues Eddie Ford

The man famous for cracking the Nazis’ ‘unbreakable’ Enigma code at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing, is due to be given a posthumous pardon. Lord Sharkey, a Liberal Democrat peer, started the ball rolling with a private member’s bill and on July 19 - to the surprise of many - the government indicated that it would throw its weight behind the move. Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, a Conservative whip, said the government would table the third reading of the Alan Turing (Statutory Pardon) Bill in the Lords at the end of October and if no amendments are made the bill would have a “speedy passage” to the House of Commons. An outbreak of consensus.

In many respects the plan to pardon Turing represents a fairly major shift in the government’s position. Only last year the government declined to grant pardons to the 49,000 gay men, all now dead, who were convicted under section 11 of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act - including Turing and Oscar Wilde.

Turing was a sexually active and shamelessly gay man (a fact known amongst his circle of friends) at a time when homosexuality was illegal and widely considered to be a perversion best not talked about. Many, of course, in the medical profession thought that this disturbing mental illness could be cured with suitable treatment. Turing was convicted of “gross indecency” in 1952 after starting a relationship with a 19-year-old man. In order to avoid going to prison, he was forced to undergo ‘chemical castration’. He was injected with oestrogen (female hormones), which was supposed to make him behave in a socially acceptable manner. But his libido remained intact and he began travelling abroad in search of ‘safe sex’, especially Norway. He eventually committed suicide in June 1954 by eating an apple laced with cyanide - though some have argued, not entirely convincingly, that his death was an accident caused his careless storage of laboratory chemicals.1

The 1940s and 50s were a contradictory period in British history. During World War II, thousands of gay servicemen had their sexuality quietly overlooked by commanding officers. Army psychologists were routinely told to turn a blind eye if an officer made a private admission of homosexuality. No need to undermine morale - after all, there was a war to fight and win. However, these ‘heroes’ were forced to return to a life of secrecy and persecution. Public disclosure of their sexual orientation might well lead to a prison sentence - unless an obliging police officer was happy to be bribed to keep your little secret quiet.

Not to be forgotten also was the atmosphere of moral panic at the time about ‘homosexual spies’ and Soviet entrapment techniques because of the revelations of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, exposed as KGB double agents. Reds under the bed - and in the MI6 bed too. In the United States of this time, furthermore, there was the similar but far more irrational ‘Lavender scare’, which ran parallel with McCarthyism. In 1950, US under-secretary of state John Peurifoy announced that the state department had “allowed” 91 homosexuals (or ‘lavender lads’) to resign.2

Readers will no doubt recall that in 2009 Gordon Brown issued an official “apology” for the treatment meted out to Turing. Sadly you can never turn the clock back, he said. Although Turing had been “dealt with under the law of the time” and in accordance with the correct procedure, it was still “utterly unfair” - he had “deserved so much better”. Therefore on behalf of the British government, Brown declared he was “deeply sorry”.

Nevertheless, the campaign for a full pardon gathered steam. On December 14 2012, Stephen Hawking, astronomer royal Lord Rees and nine other eminent signatories wrote a joint letter to The Daily Telegraph urging David Cameron to “formally forgive this British hero”, who was also “one of the most brilliant mathematicians of the modern era”. Denying that it would set a precedent, they added it was about time his reputation went “unblemished”. Peter Tatchell of Outrage went one step further, arguing that Turing deserved a “posthumous knighthood”.

During the debate in the upper house, Lord Ahmad said the government had “great sympathy” with the calls to pardon Turing, given his “outstanding achievements” - he described Turing as “one of the fathers, if not the father, of computer science”. Similarly, Baroness Trumpington - a Tory peer who worked at Bletchley Park during the war - was “certain” that, but for his work, “we would have lost the war through starvation” (interestingly, Trumpington is a veteran opponent of legislative equality for gay people). And Liberal Democrat Lord Sharkey reminded us again that Turing was a “hero” and a “very great man”.

Almost the entire debate has been framed in such a way, with repeated emphasis on how Turing was not only a war hero, but an outstanding genius. Definitely a cut above the rest of us. Perhaps summing up this venerative attitude, Steven Pinker, a Harvard professor and popular science author, recently wrote: “It would be an exaggeration to say that the British mathematician, Alan Turing, explained the nature of logical and mathematical reasoning, invented the digital computer, solved the mind-body problem, and saved western civilisation. But it would not be much of an exaggeration.”3

Of course, only an ignoramus would deny Turing’s exceptional scientific achievements. Whilst working at Bletchley Park, his incredible ‘bombe’ machine - an electromechanical device - was able to rapidly decode the 158 million, million, million variations used by the Nazis in their commands through the creation of a prototype high-speed processor. In 1936 he wrote a seminal paper called ‘On computable numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem’ (decision problem), detailing his notion of a “universal computing machine”. Essentially, he provided a rough blueprint for what would later become the electronic digital computer.

In his later years he also began extensive research into the chemical basis of morphogenesis, one of three fundamental aspects of developmental biology, along with the control of cell growth and cellular differentiation. Not only that: Turing predicted the existence of oscillating chemical reactions - which were actually observed for the first time in the 1960s. And plenty more besides.

But central to the sheer volume and intensity of the praise heaped upon Turing is the fact that it was a Briton who invented the computer and laid the basis for the worldwide web, and it was British ingenuity that rescued the world from Nazi tyranny, etc. Get the picture? Turing is now almost up there with Winston Churchill in the pantheon of national heroes. Hypocritically, Turing is being politically used to promote a narrow nationalist agenda.

There is another dimension to the Turing question which is far more welcome, however. Namely, the steady normalisation of homosexuality in society. No longer does being gay mean ostracism or criminal charges. Nowadays, even members of the Dáil in Ireland can mention they are gay without generating an uproar - a significant shift in societal attitudes. And virtually no-one in official Britain would bat an eyelid if an MP or government minister announced they were gay - so what? Stop boring us and get on with it.

Just as a form of anti-racism has been incorporated into official bourgeois ideology, the state now being institutionally anti-racist, the same goes for anti-homophobia - despite all the loud fuss about gay marriage that emanated from the more antediluvian sections of the petty bourgeoisie and the church. The idea that the capitalist ruling class is inherently racist or homophobic no longer holds water.

Given that we are witnessing a progressive phenomenon, the retreat of anti-gay bigotry, communists would not dismiss the moves to pardon Turing as irrelevant. That would be foolish. It is obviously of some significance that the government has bowed to public opinion. Equally though, it also a matter of self-interest. To put it at its most crude level possible, there are just not enough votes in gay-bashing and homophobia - a prejudice that increasing numbers of British people, especially younger ones, find utterly alien.



1. www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-18561092.

2. www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/gays-in-govt.html.

3. S Pinker The better angels of our nature: why violence has declined New York 2011. The book is essentially a Hobbesian-cum-Whiggish version of history, in which society is becoming progressively more civilised and peaceful, thanks to the marvels of “strong government” and capitalism.