Friday, 11 September 2009

Why Turing letter matters

Guest post by Richard Lane

Gordon Brown last night offered a heartfelt apology to World War II hero Alan Turing, who was forced to undergo chemical castration by the courts after a conviction for ‘gross indecency’ in 1952.

Turing famously worked at Bletchley Park during the Second World War to crack the German Enigma code machine, ultimately turning the tide of the conflict in favour of the Allies and potentially saving thousands of lives.

However, despite his invaluable work Turing was charged with gross indecency in 1952 after a relationship with another man became known to authorities. He was subsequently forced to be chemically castrated to avoid a prison sentence and suffered the indignity of having his government security clearance removed, thus barring him from continuing with his cryptographic consultancy for GCHQ.

Following his conviction and ensuing suffering, Turing took his own life on 8 June 1954 at the age of 41 – simply because he was gay.

This apology should remind us all that we must not forget the persecution and hatred faced by gay men and women just a generation ago. This apology is just a small way in which the Government can seek to atone for the suffering inflicted on so many by such barbaric laws.

It is also crucial that we refocus our attention on the international injustices still faced by so many simply due to their sexuality. With Panama decriminalising homosexuality in 2008 and Burundi for the first time in its history criminalizing homosexuality in 2009, the world now counts 80 countries with State-sponsored homophobic laws: 72 countries and 3 entities (Turkish Cyprus, Gaza and Cook Islands) punish consenting adults with imprisonment, while 5 countries (Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen and parts of Nigeria and Somalia) punish them with the death penalty.

The apology has received a warm welcome not just in Britain, but across the world. It was particularly welcomed by Michael Cashman, MEP and Patron of LGBT Labour who has long been campaigning for the apology. "The government's decision is a brilliant reminder of Labours commitment to equality and it's courage to put right the wrong decisions of the past. This news will be welcomed across the globe."

The Downing Street Petition had attracted some 30,805 people; the Prime Minister made the following statement in today’s Daily Telegraph:

2009 has been a year of deep reflection - a chance for Britain, as a nation, to commemorate the profound debts we owe to those who came before. A unique combination of anniversaries and events have stirred in us that sense of pride and gratitude which characterise the British experience.

"Earlier this year I stood with Presidents Sarkozy and Obama to honour the service and the sacrifice of the heroes who stormed the beaches of Normandy 65 years ago. And just last week, we marked the 70 years which have passed since the British government declared its willingness to take up arms against Fascism and declared the outbreak of World War Two. So I am both pleased and proud that, thanks to a coalition of computer scientists, historians and LGBT activists, we have this year a chance to mark and celebrate another contribution to Britain’s fight against the darkness of dictatorship; that of code-breaker Alan Turing.

"Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.

"I am proud that those days are gone and that in the last 12 years this government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue. So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.

Some might say "what is the point of apologising now, after this happened over 50 years ago?" but there is a point, it highlights just how far British society has come, (and others and we need to make sure there is never any turning back to the days when hatred against someone on the basis of their sexuality is accepted.

Richard Lane is an events manager for the Fabian Society.


formerlyipswich said...

So, just like George Orwell predicted, the Left are rewriting history.

That was the way the Law at the time.

It's called history. Christ are you people stupid. When's the apology for the Enclosure Acts or the Highland Clearances, possibly with a chunk of compensation, an illuminated script etc? Or perhaps Burlesconi will compensate me for the rape pillage and murder of the Legions as they ran roughshod over Britannia? Or, perhaps, compy for Dresden to the innocent chldren? Or from Turkey perhaps for the white slavery it operated for centuries? Or the Chinese to the peopled of the Orient for their Imperialistic adventures over centuries? Or Aztec decendents to the other tribes for the human sacrifice?


Do you really imagine that anyone outside Brighton really cares about this?

Sunder Katwala said...

A great many people in Brighton and across the world might have very good reason to be thankful for Alan Turing's work, and also regret his personal suffering.

The idea that national leaders or the leaders of businesses, or other institutions, etc can not sensibly offer an apology for issues they were not personally involved in is simply incoherent, at least for anybody who believes in any notion of "nation", "community", "people" or anything like that.

Certainly, this "presentism" ('we can't apologise or express regret if we weren't directly involved') seems to me always incompatible with the sense that we can be "proud of our history" or of parts of it, for example, the role of this country in fighting the second world war, the work of William Shakespeare or the England victory in the 1966 World Cup final (for which many of us now have no direct personal responsibility either).

One can argue about the correct overall balance between pride, sorrow, regret and shame one might think appropriate to the history which has shaped the society which we are - but one can only do so if one rejects the "presentism" idea that none of this can have any ethical force now because it happened in the past.

formerlyipswich says "its called history" is being used here to make the opposite argument, and I don't understand how that stands up.

Clearly, I would agree that the way in which we might express either pride, or shame, or a mixture of both, for either our family history and the actions of our direct familial ancestors, or for those of any broader community - such as a nation or other group - is qualitatively different from our relationship from our own direct personal actions, or indeed the actions of a political community of which we are part. It does not mean they can not be meaningful, unless one does indeed believe that there is no such thing as history.

And even those who would regard all such concepts as mythical (cosmopolitans or libertarians who do not think that their passport or citizenship involves any social membership) would probably still acknowledge that existing institutions - the British government, the Monarchy, Parliament, Barclays Bank, Everton Football Club, etc - are inheritors not just of their history (good and bad) but indeed of the material consequences of that (eg assets belonging to the state, or the Royal family, or a business; or indeed debts).

Zio Bastone said...

'One can argue about the correct overall balance between pride, sorrow, regret and shame one might think appropriate to the history which has shaped the society which we are - but one can only do so if one rejects the "presentism" idea that none of this can have any ethical force now because it happened in the past.'

Quite so. And it would be nice to see a real apology by this prime minister on behalf of this government to the family of Dr David Kelly, whose treatment by the narcissistic, sociopathic Alastair Campbell almost certainly contributed to his death.

Indeed it might very well be that apologising for the actions of a government in which one was a major player, of which one is now the leader, could turn out to be even more impressive than apologising decades later later for those of other people.

Not that it will happen, of course.