Comment: Alan Turing’s pardon is absolutely correct. The reason for it isn’t

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

Writing for, Chris Ward welcomes the decision to pardon Alan Turing, but says the state still has not formally acknowledged that it was wrong to have people for their sexuality in the first place.

Alan Turing is my hero. As a young gay computer scientist at university, I enthusiastically pored over his research, eventually devoting the entirety of my final year project and dissertation to his famous 1950 computer machinery and intelligence paper in which he proposed: “Can machines think?”. Only four years later, persecuted by the state for being gay, opting for chemical castration over prison, he took a bite out of an apple laced with cyanide. He was not just a “codebreaker”, as the papers call him for his incredible work at Bletchley Park, but he was also a mathematical genius and arguably the father of modern computing.

The news of the pardon should make any LGBT rights activist ecstatic. Turing represents every homosexual from that era who found themselves on the wrong end of an indecency law. From the outset, to anybody, it appears like an admission that the law was wrong.

However, the Ministry of Justice moved quickly to quash any such notion with Justice Secretary Chris Grayling (of anti-gay B&B fame) saying: “Dr Alan Turing was an exceptional man with a brilliant mind. His brilliance was put into practice at Bletchley Park during the Second World War where he was pivotal to breaking the ‘Enigma’ code, helping to end the war and save thousands of lives. Dr Turing deserves to be remembered and recognised for his fantastic contribution to the war effort and his legacy to science. A pardon from the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man.”

Not one mention of the word “gay”. Not one mention of the state-sponsored torture he endured. Not one mention of a life cut short. To Mr Grayling, a pardon is not justice, it is a “tribute”. It is no accident that the rhetoric surrounding the pardon relates solely to Turing and Turing alone. In fact, this was no ordinary pardon, as a spokesperson from the Ministry of Justice said: “Uniquely on this occasion a pardon has been issued without either requirement having been met, reflecting the exceptional nature of Alan Turing’s achievements.” Turing was not pardoned because of an admission that the persecution of homosexuals like him was abhorrent, but because the work he did at Bletchley warranted enough to have his conviction cancelled out.

The argument that these men were breaking the law at the time and therefore cannot be pardoned is a diversive and nonsense point. Throughout history we accept that there are things that made their way onto the statute book that today we would consider beyond the pale. Simply saying “it was law” does not make that law correct or right and pardons should reflect those moments where we can honestly say that the effect of a piece of legislation was ghastly and that those convicted were victims rather than criminals.

Whilst we celebrate Turing’s pardon, we should resent the reasons. For those who still need justice, Turing was an incredible posterboy. He was a war hero, a genius, and we are always left wondering what great things he could have achieved had his life not been extinguished so soon. But the notion that Turing deserved his pardon for the things he did rather than because the conviction was wrong states plainly and clearly that if you were in love at that time with somebody of the same sex and didn’t happen to be a war hero or a mathematical genius, then you remain a criminal. The campaign for justice is far from over.

Chris Ward is an LGBT campaigner and a member of the Labour Party. He blogs here.