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.