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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.