The prospect of an official pardon in respect of his conviction for gross indecency will be granted to Alan Turing, almost 50 years after his death by suicide is now within sight after the House of Lords approved the latest stage of the bill without debate. It still has to pass through the House of Commons.
Last year's centenary of Alan Turing's birth celebrated his achievements as World War II Bletchley Park codebreaker, and as a mathematician, logician and computer scientist. It also drew attention to the treatment meted out to him for homosexuality.
Turing was convicted at a time when homosexual acts were illegal in the UK and as part of his sentence underwent chemical castration. Two years later he died from cyanide poisoning, at the age of 41, apparently having committed suicide.
In 2009 the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, issued an apology for Turing's treatment but this is felt to be insufficient and that a full pardon is required.
Introducing the bill in the House of Lords (the non-elected upper house of the UK Parliament), Liberal Democrat peer Lord Sharkey argued that a man whose work may have shortened the war by two years and saved thousands of lives was later convicted of an offence "that now seems both cruel and absurd".
This is not the first time that an official pardon has been sought. Last year the British government refused to exercise the royal prerogative of mercy in Turing's case, arguing that Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence. This new attempt is for parliamentary pardon specifically for Alan Turing but, as Lord Sharkey made clear, with a further aim of making it more likely that future legislation can introduced to:
extend the disregard to all who were treated as cruelly as Turing was simply for being gay.
Lord Sharkey pointed to the fact that people are aware that AlanTuring was a hero and a very great man citing among the evidence last year's celebration of the centenary of Turing birth that included events from over 40 countries and included the London Science Museum exhibition of his work and times that has now been extended by popular demand until this October.
He also pointed to the fact the Royal Mail issued a commemorative stamp, that his Universal Machine was voted the top Great British Invention of the past 100 years and that the Turing papers, put up for auction, were saved for the nation by a donation of £200,000, a last-minute intervention by the National Heritage Memorial Fund. He also referred to the letter to the Telegraph Newspaper from leading UK scientist and academics, petitioning the Prime Minister to pardon Alan Turing.
During his speech Lord Starkey quoted from other authorities, including the head of GCHQ, the British intelligence agency, Sir Iain Lobban, who said publicly:
"we should remember that the cost of intolerance towards Alan Turing was his loss to the nation"
and Professor Jack Good, who was at Bletchley Park with Turing who pointed out
“it was a good thing the authorities hadn’t known Turing was a homosexual during the war, because if they had, they would have fired him .... and we would have lost”.
He also quoted from Professor Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature:
“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 Civilization. But it would not be much of an exaggeration”.
Conservative peer Baroness Trumpington, who had worked at Bletchley Park on the codebreaking effort, expressed her support for the bill. She also provided some historical detail about the way her path had crossed with that of Alan Turning:
When I arrived at Bletchley in 1941, there were about 400 people. When I left, there were 6,000, including the Americans. One did not wander around the buildings. One went to the room one worked in on shifts and, apart from a visit to the canteen, one did one’s work and was then transported to one’s billet. Thus one really met new or different people only in one’s transport to and from work. Unless asked by a senior member of the section to deliver a message, one remained in the same room year after year. The block I worked in was devoted to German naval codes. Only once was I asked to deliver a paper to Alan Turing, so although I knew that he had invented “Colossus”, which turned the war around in our favour, I cannot claim that I knew him. However, I am certain that but for his work we would have lost the war through starvation.
The next speaker, Labour peer Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, arguing that the bill should not suffer any delay, pointed out that 37,000 people have signed a petition asking for such a pardon. She also reminded the assembled peers:
The code of practice at Bletchley was utmost secrecy and such were the standards in those days that people actually followed it... and the many people who worked at Bletchley never told anyone in their families, even to their dying day. When Alan Turing was charged in 1952, the public had very little idea of the work he had done at Bletchley. ... One cannot but help wonder, had he lived his full term of life, just what benefits we and the rest of the world would have seen from this man.
The current Astronomer Royal and past preident of the Royal Society, cosmologist and astrophysicist Martin Rees, Baron Rees of Ludlow, referred to Turing's scientific work for which he had never received enough credit for a different reason:
His greatest insight, in a paper published back in 1936—his study of the scope and limits of a general purpose computer—was so far ahead of its time that its implications took decades to be fully appreciated. His visionary contributions to computer science, along with those to artificial intelligence and developmental biology, have crescendoed in their impact as computers have become ever more pervasive in our lives. Indeed, there would now be a consensus that Turing belongs in the pantheon of the very greatest 20th-century scientists.
Baron Rees also pointed out the international dimension of a formal pardon:
Turing’s code-breaking work makes him a specifically British hero but his scientific contributions are acclaimed throughout the rest of the world just as much as they are here. Anyone who has done a course in computer science, be it in the US, Japan, Brazil or anywhere else, will know his name. They will know about the Turing machine and perhaps the Turing test. It is likely that many will have been curious enough about him to have learnt the main facts of his biography. Even educated people in Asia and the Americas know little about the English penal system, but if they know of any individual cases then Turing’s is likely to be among them. It has, after all, featured in plays, best-selling books and will soon feature, as we have heard, in musicals and films. He has become an icon of gay rights as well as among scientists. Millions around the world know how he was treated, how he was convicted and the bizarre and cruel penalty that he suffered. Gordon Brown’s apology was welcome but, although it registered in this country, it did not register internationally in the way that a declaration by Parliament would. That is why a formal pardon redressing the damaging perception would be widely received and welcomed internationally.
Towards the end of debate, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, a government whip, spoke on behalf of the government pointing out:
"Alan Turing himself believed that homosexual activity would be made legal by a royal commission. In fact, appropriately, it was parliament which decriminalised the activity for which he was convicted. The government are very aware of the calls to pardon Turing, given his outstanding achievements, and have great sympathy with this objective … That is why the government believe it is right that parliament should be free to respond to this bill in whatever way its conscience dictates and in whatever way it so wills."
Lord Ahmad gave the assurance:
"If nobody tables an amendment to this bill, its supporters can be assured that it will have speedy passage to the House of Commons,"
In other words, there is good reason to believe that Alan Turing will finally be granted a posthumous pardon.