Pardon for Turing?

It’s a while now since the British government issued a collective pardon to all those executed for desertion and like offences during the Great War. At the time, I greatly admired the tenacity of the relatives and others who campaigned for pardons, but felt that it was rather an easy gesture on the part of the government giving them kudos for being sensitive while costing them nothing. It also seemed a bit hubristic – look, we’re not like that any more; we treat our soldiers well now. As the mismanagement of the Afghan War becomes more obvious (How many soldiers have died because of equipment problems?)  the gesture looks increasingly shallow.

The pardon was meant to silence the protestors, who had been a mild embarrassment to the authorities for years. What it has done, though, is to awaken new campaigns for pardons for other sorts of people wrongly punished. There are campaign, for example, to pardon all the women convicted (and sometimes executed) as witches through the ages. Recently a demand was rejected for the pardon of Helen Duncan, the last person convicted of witchcraft in Britain. At a seance, she mystically revealed the sinking of a British ship before the news was officially announced. Sceptics suggest that she was almost certainly a ripe old fraud repeating what would have been common gossip in a port area, but dressing it up to look impressive for her clientele.

At the opposite end of the human spectrum to Helen Duncan the spiritualist is Alan Turing, one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century, whose thinking paved the way for the computer and whose work  at Bletchley Park was crucial to winning the Second World War. (I feel a special gratitude for this because breaking the Enigma code had its greatest effect in the Battle of the Atlantic, where my father commanded a minesweeper. Without Turing’s work his convoys might not have been able to avoid the U-Boats – and I might never have existed.) In the fifties he was the subject of police attention for his homosexual activities, tried and convicted, and forced to undergo aversion therapy. The experience almost certainly contributed to his suicide a few years later.

Gay campaigners want Turing pardoned, and I can see why.  But I can think of better ways to celebrate him than turning him into a grievance. More funding for the terific Bletchley Park museum would be good, for a start. And since at the 2012 Olympics we shall be  celebrating great British achievements, and since Turing was a long-distance runner, why not dedicate the Marathon to his memory, dotting the course with posters commemorating his life, not concealing his sexual nature. That would send a powerful message to the world, including those countries where people like him are still liable to arrest and cruel treatment. Much more use than a pardon.



  1. Posted August 23, 2009 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    I agree that the idea of ‘pardoning’ Turing seems beside the point. The culture which treated him (and others) in that way might require pardoning, not Turing himself.

  2. Posted August 23, 2009 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    But, er, a pardon infers the offender was indeed guilty and is now being pardoned for the act.

    If the act was not wrong, but societal attitudes at the time lacked the requisiste open-mindedness to accept, say Turing’s homosexuality–or at least to recognize that his sex life was nobody’s business but his–than isn’t an apology, not a pardon, what is owed?

    At any rate, I’d run a marathon in his name…

  3. Alan Allport
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 2:25 am | Permalink

    Helen Duncan wasn’t prosecuted for being a witch as such, but for *fraudulently* pretending to have spiritual powers, which AFAIK was the only sort of crime recognized by the 1735 legislation (i.e. by the eighteenth century the state no longer believed that witches were real).

  4. Posted August 24, 2009 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the correction, Alan.
    I’ve now looked up Helen Duncan, and have found an interesting account of her trial, by true-believing spiritualists, at
    According to this, Helen offered to go into a trance in the witness box, and give a demonstration of her skills, but this was ruled out by the court. A pity.
    According to an American tabloid this remarkable lady predicted in 1956 that President Obama would fire missiles at Iran in January 2009.See


  5. Posted September 7, 2009 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Presumably because of this post, I’ve been sent an email about a commemoration of Turing, so I might as well pass it on, even though stamp-collecting has never been my thing.

    Secret post office honours Turing

    Computer pioneer Alan Turing features on a number of first day covers issued by the little post office at Bletchley Park. The most recent is called from “From Coal to Chips”. Its design theme links the industrial revolution of 250 years ago to Bletchley Park’s role in the development of the electronic computer. Along with the industrial pioneers on the stamps are specially commissioned portraits of Alan Turing and Tommy Flowers. The first day of issue cancel for the Royal Mail stamps is a representation of a thermionic valve from the Colossus computer they created.

    Often referred to as little pieces of art and history these limited edition covers issued from Bletchley Park are very collectable and post issue prices can reach several hundred pounds GBP. So as well as helping save Bletchley Park they are probably one of the best investments around at the moment.

    Current issue price is GBP £15 plus £1.50 post and packing. They are only available through the web site or Bletchley Park Post Office, The Mansion, Bletchley Park, Milton Keynes, MK3 6EB. Tel, 01908 631797/272690

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