By Tommy Sheridan
The name Alan Turing might not be familiar in every household yet his contribution to the Second World War effort is now widely accepted as extraordinary and essential. He applied his brilliant and unique mathematical mind to breaking the secret codes used for important communications by the Nazi war command. His work on the Enigma codebreaking machine is now the stuff of legend and films. Without him the Nazis would have proved even more difficult to defeat and may even have successfully defended the Western Front. Some historians and politicians have suggested his contribution to undermining the vital Nazi communications network cut the war short by four years and potentially saved 21 million lives https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/jul/15/alan-turing-to-feature-on-new-50-note.
He is also widely recognised as the father of modern computing. Without his work I may not be able to type this article into my laptop. Alan Turing was undoubtedly an intellectual giant and 2nd World War hero. Only 14 days ago the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, announced Turing’s face will appear on the new £50 polymer note when it goes into circulation in 2021, following a public consultation process designed to honour an eminent British scientist. The Bank said it had received a total of 227,299 nominations, covering 989 eligible characters. These were narrowed down to a shortlist of 12, with Carney making the final choice.
The shortlisted characters, or pairs of characters, were Mary Anning, Paul Dirac, Rosalind Franklin, William Herschel and Caroline Herschel, Dorothy Hodgkin, Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, Stephen Hawking, James Clerk Maxwell, Srinivasa Ramanujan, Ernest Rutherford, Frederick Sanger, and Alan Turing.
What an incredible accolade to be nominated and selected from amongst such brilliant and clever intellects yet a vital question remains. Why did he die a broken man in 1954 aged only 41?
Some speculate that Alan Turing was killed by MI5 but the official inquest recorded a verdict of suicide through consumption of cyanide. He was hauled before a court in 1952 and convicted of the crime of gross indecency which meant no more than being gay. He was actually convicted of a crime because he had had consenting sexual relations with another adult man.
This hero of the United Kingdom some 5 years earlier was now a convicted criminal spared prison only because of his recognised contribution to the war effort. He was spared jail but not punishment. He was ordered to undergo experimental hormone therapy which caused significant breast enlargement and other unwelcome physical changes. In modern language the process would be described as a form of ‘chemical castration’. Alan Turing described the process as horrible and humiliating.
What a shameful and heartless period in British justice that was. The Offences against the Person Act 1861 under which Alan Turing was convicted was only repealed in 1967. He pled guilty to his involvement in a sexual relationship with another man because he felt no remorse whatsoever. The relationship only came to light as a result of an investigation into a burglary at his home.
Sixty One years after his conviction and fifty nine years after his death Alan Turing was granted a posthumous pardon under a Royal Prerogative of Mercy on 24th December 2013. He had already secured an official public apology in September 2009 by then Prime Minister Gordon Brown for his “appalling” treatment by the British justice system.
Hopefully all of us welcomed this pardon six years ago and recognised that what happened to Alan Turing was wrong and morally reprehensible. However it stood as a pompous and hypocritical gesture on its own. Alan Turing was criminalised for being a gay man in 1952. An estimated 75,000 other men were similarly criminalised under the same 1861 Act. The real tribute to Alan Turing was to be the introduction of the Policing and Crime Act 2017 which granted automatic pardons to thousands of gay and bisexual men in England and Wales who died with criminal records because of their sexual orientation. It was fittingly referred to as ‘Turing’s law’.
Alan Turing was an exceptional individual but his shameful treatment under the Offences against the Person Act 1861 was not exceptional. It affected thousands of other men. Their names had to be cleared and their ‘crimes’ expunged from public record.
The shortcoming in the Policing and Crime Act 2017 is it applied automatically only to those who were deceased. Those convicted under the Offences against the Person Act 1861 before its 1967 Repeal and who are still living today have to apply for a ‘disregard’ through a Home Office ‘disregard scheme’. It is progress but still overly bureaucratic.
The equivalent legislation introduced in Scotland under the Historical Sexual Offences (Pardons and Disregards) (Scotland) Act 2018 received Royal Assent on 11th July 2018. It was introduced to pardon persons convicted of certain historical sexual offences and to provide a process for convictions for those offences to be disregarded. The ‘disregard’ process is more straightforward and was widely welcomed across Scotland. During the final Stage 3 Debate in the Scottish Parliament on June 6th last year the then Scottish Justice Secretary, Michael Mathieson MSP, said:
“It is right that, at decision time tonight, we will right the wrongs of the past, as we set our course for the future modern Scotland that is tolerant, inclusive and outward focused in sharing our stories and experiences with other parts of the world, and in seeking to spread equality and opportunity across all countries. Tonight, we have an opportunity to put right that wrong with pride and, as Stewart Stevenson said, with gladness in our hearts by voting for the bill” http://www.parliament.scot/parliamentarybusiness/report.aspx?r=11581&mode=pdf
The vote from amongst the SNP, Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem and Green Party MSPs present that night was unanimous, 119 in favour with no abstentions and none against. That unanimous endorsement of seeking to right an historical wrong in relation to criminalising homosexuality reflects how far society has progressed in relation to attitudes to sexual orientation and equality. However there is no room for complacency in relation to such matters and much more remains to be achieved.
The overtly racist language being used by the President of the United States of America and the election of a Prime Minister in the UK with a sorry record of racist statements and outbursts alongside rising hate crimes against Muslims, Gays, Blacks and immigrants both in the UK and the US is a cold hard reminder that although we have ditched some of our harshest, racist and sexist laws from the statute books vigilance against bigoted attitudes and ideas is essential in every walk of life and in every generation.
Alan Turing was a genius who applied his mind to assist humanity in the crusade against Hitler and fascism. His efforts undoubtedly saved millions of lives. His treatment after the war was outrageous and disgraceful. He was and is a hero and scientific icon. His sexual orientation was irrelevant and it is a shame of enormous proportions that such a man was hounded and persecuted for the ‘crime’ of loving another man. Love comes in all shapes and forms and should be facilitated and encouraged within society. We need more love and less hate in this increasingly complex and dangerous world we inhabit.
This article was written by our Political Adviser, Tommy Sheridan and does not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or policy of Solidarity as a whole