Monday, October 24, 2016

A pardon for Alan Turing? It's not a simple as it might seem.

The issue over a pardon for Alan Turing and those similarly convicted of homosexual "offences" is more complex than some think. At any one moment in time we have laws. People are convicted under these laws and punished. Sometimes these convictions turn out to be unsafe and sometimes this only becomes apparent happens a long time after the event. The Timothy Evans or the Birmingham Bomb case for example. Here the pardons were made because of wrongful conviction - which they were. In effect the pardons overturned the convictions and made those convicted officially innocent in the eyes of the law (not much help to Mr Evans, sadly). 

The case of Alan Turing (etc.) is different. Nobody is saying his conviction was unsafe. He was correctly convicted under the law of the day. Nobody disputes that. So it would be inappropriate to pardon him because of wrongful conviction.  

Alan Turing and many others were convicted of transgressing against laws then on the Statute Book which are no longer on that book. We have in the last fifty years had a raft of social legislation which has liberalised our society. Among these has been the decriminalisation of homosexuality. What Turing was convicted as having done would today not be a crime.  

Today's generation has assumed it has the right to criticise the illiberality of previous generations. That's fine by me - and there's plenty to criticise. Slavery. Institutionalised discrimination against minorities. Dangerous employment practises. You name it the past was a tough old place. But that's how it was.  

Alan Turing was rightfully convicted under what we now believe to have been an unjust law. Today's mores and values and sense of what is right or wrong - and the laws which surround them - are different from those of 70 years ago. I think that we have advanced as a society as a consequence. Not everyone agrees - although as far as the decriminalisation of homosexuality is concerned few would argue that this change was anything other than desirable. 

We have a sense of guilt about what happened to Turing. But it is not guilt about our own actions but about those of a previous generation and the society that then existed. So what, if anything, should we do about it ? The usual requirement for a pardon (wrongful conviction) does not apply. It is frankly nonsense to argue (as some are doing) that because someone was convicted of an offence in 1952 that would not be an offence in 2016 he should therefore be pardoned. 

If we choose to pardon Alan Turing (et al) we should be very clear about why we are doing it. Because we believe ourselves to be more virtuous than our parents or grandparents is not a reason. Nor is it a good reason that Turing was a great man and that his life story has been well told in a fine movie. The failed Bill proposed by the SNP did not do that for me. If the Government bill does (as the pardon of those convicted and executed under Courts Martial during the Great War did) then I will welcome it. But, as I say, it's more complex than it might seem to be.


Since posting this it has been pointed out to me that Alan Turing has already been pardoned and that this is about also pardoning similarly convicted men. I had forgotten that. Checking on the reasons given at the time (2013) for Turing's pardon they are as follows:

"The Justice Secretary has the power to ask the Queen to grant a pardon under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, for civilians convicted in England and Wales.

A pardon is only normally granted when the person is innocent of the offence and where a request has been made by someone with a vested interest such as a family member. Uniquely on this occasion a pardon has been issued without either requirement being met, reflecting the exceptional nature of Alan Turing’s achievements."

The "uniquely" didn't last long. And the reasons given (Turing's "achievements" and the "exceptional nature" of them) were highly questionable to say the least. And they do not apply to others for whom it is now proposed a pardon be granted. The can of worms is open... 


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