Rewriting history will not atone for the mistreatment of Alan Turing

If we pardon Turing, there are thousands more due the same. Never returning to those times should be

In LGBT History month, denying a persecuted homosexual a pardon seems particularly insensitive. But in the case of Alan Turing, the so-called Father of Computing and Bletchley Park code-breaker, and the subject of a campaign to absolve him posthumously of a "gross indecency" conviction, Lord Justice McNally has made the right decision.

Charged with the offence in 1952, Turing was offered a choice of sentence -- prison or chemical castration. He opted for the second, but was so distressed by the treatment that he committed suicide two years later. In 2009, a petition demanding that Turing be apologised to in light of his contribution to national life, ratcheted up 30,000 signatures on the No 10 website. Gordon Brown made a national apology for Turing's treatment but no pardon was granted. Meanwhile, the current e-petition, started by William Jones and carried forward by Lib Dem MP John Leech -- who tabled an early day motion to secure Turing's pardon -- is backed by the Guardian and has been so far signed by more than 28,000 people.

The motivation for pardoning Turing comes with the best of intentions. But the pardon itself would achieve what, exactly? Help construct the acceptable face of establishment homosexuality in a patriotic form? Assure the LGBTQI community that the government's commitment to equal rights really does have nothing to do with vote-swinging? Make us feel better about a law that we cannot -- and must not -- forget existed in the first place?

Instead, pardoning Turing would actually create a problem -- it would establish a precedent for the "deserving" homosexual. John Graham-Cummingham, the computer scientist who created the first petition said: "You don't have to be gay to think that prosecuting a man for a private consensual sex act who just seven years before had been hailed as a hero of the Second World War was simply wrong." Fair enough. But the implication of pardoning Turing now would be that he is worthy of his pardon only because he was a national hero; a some gays are more equal than others kind of approach. If we pardon Turing, there are thousands more due the same -- every lesbian, bisexual, gay, intersex and trans man and woman persecuted or harassed throughout the nation's history, from Oscar Wilde to Radclyffe Hall, to the everyday citizens whose secret lives were made the stuff of public shame and state prosecution.

While we're at it, if we're cleaning up historical inequalities, why stop there? What of those convicted under or controlled by other laws we now regard as inhumane -- women burned for witchcraft, for example, or the 18th century designation of black slaves as commodities under the Trade and Navigation Act? What's more, if as an act of contrition we are to overturn past criminal convictions, it would surely only be just to issue posthumous prosecutions for those who committed what we now consider to be crimes. But just what exactly would an anachronistic sentencing and pardoning policy achieve for these victims of our history? Defending the decision not to pardon Turing, Lord MacNally stated:

Long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place ... Rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, [we should] ensure instead that we never again return to those times.

Never returning to those times; that should be our aim.

If we are to use e-petitions for social good, how about we use them to challenge the government on practices causing harm to the LGBTQI community right now; the Commonwealth's failure to condemn Jamaica's stringent sodomy laws, for example, particularly considering the fact that the prohibition of homosexuality was a colonial import in the first place. Or the revised laws on giving blood which previously banned gay men from donating because of the HIV risk, and now merely allow those who have been celibate for a decade to donate. This is both unjust and irrational when heterosexual transmissions account for the greater number of overall UK infections, and when all donors are not routinely asked how much unprotected sex they have had. There are two petitions for you; there are hundreds more.

Turing's story is sickening; but rewriting history will not help atone for his treatment. Instead, in his centenary year, let's celebrate his life's work and achievements and ensure he takes the place in British history he so deserves. After all, his sexuality has nothing to do with that.

Nichi Hodgson is a 28-year-old freelance journalist specialising in sexual politics, law and culture.

This article was updated at 9.45am on 10 February 2012.

 

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.