Matthew Parris

Why I’m against posthumous pardons, even for Alan Turing

26 July 2014

9:00 AM

26 July 2014

9:00 AM

Ross Clark is a columnist I try to read because he is never trite. So I was sorry to miss performances of his musical play staged earlier this month. Shot at Dawn is about a sister’s quest for a recognition (after his death) of her brother, Harry Briggs, a soldier in the Great War who was executed for desertion. The play is sympathetic to the idea of posthumous pardon; coupled with this, it’s a lament that society punishes people without trying to understand why they do what they did.

A second theme emerges: homosexuality, and the difficulty (then) of living with this in a world that does not understand. I suppose you could say that Ross’s play is about looking back not in anger but in sympathy.

Here’s a heresy, then. I intend no offence to legions of noble souls for whose posthumous pardons a powerful and moving defence can be made, but there’s an opinion I cannot shake off. I don’t believe in posthumous pardon — no, not even of Alan Turing.

Turing, a mathematician and computing expert, worked during the second world war at Bletchley Park, and his efforts were key to the breaking of the Enigma code, an immense and important achievement. But in 1952 he was convicted of indecency with another man (behaviour which would not be criminal today) and his subsequent history is very sad. To avoid imprisonment he chose chemical castration, and later (according to the accepted account) committed suicide. The affair was a monstrous injustice in everything but the strict legal sense of that word.

But Turing did commit what was, according the law at that time, indecency with another man. His conviction cannot be quashed (as was that of Derek Bentley, hanged for murder a year earlier after being convicted on unsafe evidence), because in Turing’s case due process was followed. This is why, after a huge campaign, the device of a posthumous royal pardon was chosen, and granted in 2013.


Why? And more particularly, why just Turing? Except where key evidence has been discredited, I believe convictions should be left to lie where they fell. Retrospectively fiddling around with long-settled cases just because they’ve become famous is philosophically sloppy: an irrational surrender to the emotional tide. It is also a slippery slope.

The idea of posthumous ‘pardon’ is set in a curious twilight in the English mind. In law it does not overturn or reverse a court’s verdict, but is an act of royal mercy or clemency. In the popular imagination, however, a pardon is somewhat confused with the notion of nullifying or erasing a conviction, but it is really closer to the idea of forgiving than of exculpating. It is not, however, the same as forgiving, for we may forgive the most awful crimes, forgiveness reflecting on the mind and heart of the forgiver rather than the guilt or otherwise of the forgiven. A pardon reflects on (and rehabilitates) the pardoned, connoting some vague sense of recompense because justice was not done. Well, you may say, in that case isn’t a pardon precisely what men like Turing — or indeed Briggs — deserve?

It depends. If you think the main reason to pardon Turing or Briggs is that there was something wonderful about them that so elevates the life in question that other culpabilities are outweighed in the balance — that they have, so to speak, transcended their crime — then you do have a case for a posthumous pardon. But you would also have a case for the posthumous pardon of a convicted paedophile who was (say) awarded the VC for bravery in war; or a notorious fraudster who left billions to the poor.

If, on the other hand, you think the main reason to pardon Briggs or Turing is that there has been a change in public sentiment towards their supposed wrongdoing (in Turing’s case homosexuality, in Briggs’s cowardice) and there should never been a law against what they did in the first place, then be clear about this: behind these two wait millions more, forgotten by our age.

To take, first, the famous: what about Peter Wildeblood, whose 1950s novel Against the Law helped inform the Wolfenden Committee, to whom he gave testimony, and was part of the attitudinal change that allowed the committee to recommend the limited decriminalisation of homosexuality? Previously, Wildeblood had been imprisoned for homosexual offences relating to the incidents that led to the imprisonment of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. It isn’t long since Wildeblood died. Montagu is still alive. None of the offences of which either was convicted would be offences now.

And after Wildeblood, all through the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, follows a procession of tens of thousands of forgotten men whose lives — those that did not end in suicide — were variously stained or wrecked by convictions under laws that have now been abolished. I recall campaigning as an MP in the 1980s against the Metropolitan Police’s outrageous ‘pretty policemen’ policy of entrapping gay men (‘It was just an effortless way of adding to our conviction rates,’ one told me recently). A pardon for all of these?

I mentioned suicide. In many of our lifetimes, this too was illegal. The law finally fell into disuse, but not before many pathetic individuals were paraded through the courts for the crime of trying to kill themselves. Why not a posthumous pardon for these?

How about the suffragettes, convicted of public order offences? The Quakers imprisoned for refusing to swear the Oath? Poachers who were executed? What if we scrap the anti-hunting laws — should there be pardons for those convicted while they were in force? And why only posthumously; should the living have no redress?

Ah, redress. With redress these days can come money. Should individuals still living, whose lives have been scarred by convictions for behaviour we no longer stigmatise, be entitled to the compensation we offer victims of the behaviour we do?

No. Society changes. Attitudes change. Old sins are abolished and new sins raised up in their place. Let’s rejoice that our generation is not taking the prisoners our forefathers’ generations took, forgive both the once-persecuted and their once-persecutors but — shedding a quiet tear for Harry Briggs and Alan Turing — block our ears to the cry for redress. It’s too late.

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Show comments
  • Sean Grainger

    As Paul Jones quoted Louis Armstrong: ‘Hey man. when you’re dead, everything’s wrong.’

  • JPeron

    The law was the law? Those Nuremberg laws were unpleasant, but due process was followed. Let’s just leave all those matters lie because society changes.

    • Shenandoah

      This isn’t, and never was, Nazi Germany. Next!

      • JPeron

        Same principle, different situation. But then, most conservatives have given up principles.

        • Shenandoah

          I have no idea what you’re talking about.

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            Of course you haven’t.

          • What do you mean? I get you loud and clear nine times out of ten (we ALL do).

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            Disagree for the sake of being disagreeable, object in order to be objectionable. But light on original contribution. Look at your record. It’s undeniable.

          • Well, you’re as wrong about that as you are about everything else.

          • pedestrianblogger

            A pithy and very accurate description of your own contribution to the blogs but breathtakingly inaccurate as a description of Shenandoah’s. Your posts are all basically the same and induce the same mixed feelings of boredom and embarrassment on your behalf.

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            Guests to the right of me, Guests to the left of me, Volley`d and thunder`d.

          • George Smiley

            Of course you wouldn’t, because he is really just an unemployed Japanese basket case in some Japanese loony bin, and who thinks that he is British just simply because he had gone to some boarding school somewhere in Oxfordshire sometime in the 1990s! Japan is really just an overcrowded, expensive hell-hole with little personal space nor privacy, so I don’t see how any true Briton (and not those Japanese who are British by passport only) would actually write home to boost about living in that Country!

  • Webwrights

    All shall have prizes. All shall have pardons. They have no magical power to redress, but are largely intended to make the apologist feel warm, fluffy and self-righteous. Where do we stop; pardons for everyone hanged or transported for theft of a ring or silk handkerchief, or poaching the King’s venison? Pardons for the respective martyrs of the religious ding-dongs of the C16? Pardons for ‘witches’ drowned or burned? Pardons for William Tyndale, Joan of Arc, Perkin Warbeck or the Duke of Clarence? A pardon for Admiral Byng? I’m sure that all would lie more easily in their graves if only Mr. Cameron would stand and shed crocodile tears on their behalf.

    Perhaps pardons (like everything else) need a policy; perhaps an annual rite to follow the Queen’s Speech, to end fatuously – like Oscar-winning speeches – with: “… and anyone else I might have forgotten”.

  • Peter Stroud

    Mathew Parris makes a well considered case. Surely posthumous pardons should only be given, if fault is found in the prosecution’s case.

    Yes and slightly off message, can we please stop politicians apologising for behaviour of past generations. Such acts demonstrate the worst form of hypocrisy.

    • GraveDave

      He was punished for being ‘queer’.That was fault enough. It was malicious. A man who had served his country as well. Sometimes I wonder why we – or rather our forebears- fought that bloody war.

      • whs1954

        True enough. But it is too late for redress. And besides – while Turing has a pardon, why doesn’t any other man (albeit a gay man who didn’t crack the Enigma code) get a pardon? For the same reason as M Parris, I’d sooner no convicted gay man got a pardon than ths pick ‘n’ choose nonsense.

        • GraveDave

          Three days late. Sorry. But the point is if he had been a straight man it’s just as likely the indecency charge would not have been instigated.Though there’s no way of knowing that now.But I believe it to have been malicious.

          And I’m no great fan of modern day ‘pick and choose’ political correctness either.

    • mikewaller

      They have also served usefully to lance a number of festering boils. As for Turing, coupling him with Ronnie Biggs is deeply offensive and the whole trust of the piece suggests to me that MP simply cannot get his middle order late 20th century mind around the enormity of what Turing did for this country and the world. If anybody was a special case, he was.

      • Richard Ferguson

        Harry Briggs, not Ronnie…..

        • mikewaller

          I sit here like a comic book character, my face red, lines radiating from it and the word “SHAME” spelt out above!!!

          • Richard Ferguson

            Be careful Mike. The prevalent theme of these comments sections is (1) never acknowledge a mistake (2) don’t admit fault or (3) never see shades of grey. At this rate you’ll be starting a revolutionary new trend. On the mad mental referendum forums they’d be howling with outrage at your error. 😉

          • mikewaller

            Give me a bit more time am I am sure I’ll learn the ropes!!!!!!!

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        The real knee-buckler is that up to 1961, suicide was a criminal offence.

        • Grey Comrie

          And so was being gay … so in either case, he was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.

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  • GraveDave

    I suppose it was only the men they punished for it back then.
    Couldn’t very well castrate a lesbian could you.

    • kidmugsy

      It was only men they punished because it was only men for whom it was illegal.

      • GraveDave

        I know ; – )

      • Grey Comrie

        Wot! Wot! That’s because the laws were written by men, most probably either hiding their own homosexual feelings, or very turned on by the prospect of women being intimate with one another. Such insecurity.

  • Roger Hudson

    Are you saying importuning men in a public toilet is no longer a crime?, are males entering a toilet at risk of someone lewdly suggesting sexual acts within the law.
    Changing the law was to allow men like mr. Parris to have a private life without fear, it was not the intention that men could parade through London en-mass in latex tights making rude suggestions to people.

    • GraveDave

      They got George Michael for it.

    • rtj1211

      But young ladies parading through London en masse in micro skirts, sheer black tights and somewhat translucent blouses adds some spice to the day, does it??

  • Gergiev

    Equality before the law should mean that all convictions for homosexual behaviour should be pardoned, not just the case of one partriotic genius but all the fascist numbskulls as well.

  • rtj1211

    Ultimately the issue is whether you have altered the history books in school or not.

    You can perfectly well teach children that ‘at that time, homosexuality was illegal and, under the laws of the land, Turing was convicted. Now, the laws are different, homosexuals are free to live in the open and many people have benefitted from it.’

    The only danger to no posthumous pardon is if historians try to rewrite history…..

  • Shenandoah

    Wow, what a thoughtful piece, Mr Parris.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    According to Wikipedia, “Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (better known as the Wolfenden report), published in Britain on 4 September 1957 after a succession of well-known men, including Lord Montagu, Michael Pitt-Rivers and Peter Wildeblood (of the Daily mail), were convicted of homosexual offences: I don’t think Lord Montagu was convicted. However, to spare the blushes of the ladies on the committee, it was agreed that Homosexuals would be referred to as “Huntleys” and Prostitutes as “Palmers”.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      In fact Lord Montagu was sent down for a year. So eager was the establishment to make an example of somebody, that it actually imprisoned a peer of the realm. Presumably Catholic priests were graded “Hand Off”.

  • Picquet

    It’s fashionable. It’ll pass.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Don’t the homophobic witch hunt trials in Britain in the 1950s, remind you of paedo-crazy Britain of today?

    • GraveDave

      ‘Tan me hide when I’m dead Fred’….How are you jack?

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        You’re going to have to spell it out for me.
        “Let me Abos go loose, Bruce.”

    • Shenandoah

      No.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Let me give you a 1950’s insight on how the ruling class viewed homosexuality. Essentially, they felt that men were letting the side down. Specifically a man taking the woman’s role and position; and “we know that women are inferior”. And that in a nutshell was why the establishment saw homosexuality as a disease, and what was more, an incurable disease.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    One detail about the persecution of homosexuals in Britain in the 1940s through 60s was that homosexuality cut across social classes, which particularly antagonised the Establishment in class-ridden Britain. “How could you associate with a person who was clearly your social inferior?” Homosexuals in Britain in the 1940s, 50s and 60s were already outside the law for engaging in acts which they considered were none of Authority’s business. This must have generated serious resentment and established a potential “Fifth Column” of people who had issues with Authority.
    Review the “Cambridge Spies”and how they were recruited, although why these upper class toffs were doubling for Redland is hard to fathom, as the Soviet Union was also negative towards homosexuality. Interesting to note that Kim Philby was passing enigma sourced information to his Russian handler, which allowed the Soviets to up-armour their tanks and thus win the battle Kursh. The largest tank battle in history. Britain reasoned that passing Enigma information to their Russian allies was insecure, but we may surmise that Churchill wanted to weaken Germany and Russia equally.
    Jack, the Japan Alps Brit

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    In the 50s and 60s, the official view supported by selected medical opinion was that homosexuality was an incurable disease that some men were born with. So essentially the British establishment was punishing men for a condition they were not responsible for and over which they had no control. About as logical as punishing people for being left-handed or short-sighted.

    • Shenandoah

      And that sheds light on what exactly?

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Britain, a good country to be from. A long way from.
        Jack, Japan Alps

      • pedestrianblogger

        Jack is not here to shed light. His post is just a variation on his usual one of “Look at me! Look at ME!!”.

        • Yes, and ‘Look how much better I am than you because I don’t live in Britain!’.

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            You’re not Jock McNutter’s evil twin are you? Because you’re about as daft as the Rochdale retard.

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        • Jackthesmilingblack

          Brits, envy runs through them like Blackpool through rock.

  • Shenandoah

    The truth about homosexuality can’t be said. This is because, in classical liberal modern democratic regimes, all are equal, and must be seen as equal, politically as well as under the law. Gayness has historically been a problem for gays because it is not understood, because it does not help the sex balance (a serious concern, actually), and because it has no raison d’etre in reproduction (a serious philosophic point if nothing else). Nature clearly does not aim at gayness as nature has designed sexual reproduction for a reason — and reproduction is why we have a sex at all. There is no way to get around this. Those that try are being disingenuous.

    • Grey Comrie

      With 7.5 billion people on the planet, projected to reach 9 billion by 2050 (that’s a 50% increase since 2000) – I don’t believe that sexual reproduction is in any danger; more likely, natural resources, including land and fresh water, will become the worry in decades to come. Homosexuality is seen in most all species in nature, and therefore, natural.

  • Terry Field

    Yes, acting to prosecute people for past actions when norms are changed and hen retrospectively applied are a feature of mob rule. As with Mr Harris and others. This, however, is quite different.
    It is not unreasonable to consider that the forced castration of a person convicted of homosexuality is in the same class of outrage as that practiced by Dr Mengele on the other side of the channel a few years earlier.
    I am not a fan of the changed social view of homosexual life – indeed I greatly regret it – but the chemical castration of a man is a violent barbarism.
    That his work in the war was of such immense value and brought great benefits simply adds to the pathos, but is not relevant to the central matter – he was subjected to a state-sanctioned act of immense violence.
    We all should feel the State, that insists we are its subjects, must make that clear. Now.

  • e2toe4

    Just come back to this months late…from a coffee-house link…But now here may as well chuck the idea biscuit down the manhole of digital extinction…… Better idea than just pardoning everyone according to today’s Laws (Or banging ’em up -in hypothetical Guantanamos . like Poor Old Goliath’s killer..the midget David) would be to take any families with an ancestor banished to Australia, and work out the distribution of poor people who succeeded in Georgian and early Victorian Britain.

    Then randomly apply that proportion to the families and distribute bonus cash as a grant of fortune to an appropriate number of descendants the person might well have accrued had they not been cruelly banished…A pardon AND a transgenerational bag of lotto cash swag!

    And , even better, using the same formula……tax to bits some present day loaded Aussies who…had their ancestors NOT been cruelly banished by Law, would never have had the chance to become tall poppies in the Lucky Country, and amass their own present day dynastic fortunes…..

    What’s not to like?

    • Grey Comrie

      You might as well add we ancestors whose grandparents were run out to Canada during The Clearances; Tony Blair did apologize for these acts in November 2006.

      • e2toe4

        I think deep-down everyone knows that these apologies reaching back into history are more PR than anything else really…less about *then* than *now*.

        One can only meaningfully apologise for something one has some kind of responsibility for ..whether in some chain of command or line of management, or directly.

        Apologising for anything that happened before one’s own life is a bit of an empty gesture …although as these days empty gestures seem all the rage I suppose doing so has some PR *Virtue signalling* worth.

        Hence TB apologises for the clearances and not for the Iraq War.

        • Grey Comrie

          A very good point indeed!

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