A couple of reports in the Herald last week caught my eye. On Thursday: Thousands of convicted gay people to be given pardon; and on Friday, Pressure mounts to strip BHS ‘spiv’ Green of knighthood. Let us draw a connection.
The Westminster government is drawing up new legislation whereby gay people who were convicted under the laws against homosexuality will be posthumously pardoned. This legislation has been dubbed “Turing Law” after Alan Turing, the mathematician and cryptographer who was convicted of homosexual offences in 1952. He was offered the choice of imprisonment, or chemical castration, and opted for the latter. He committed suicide in 1954. He was posthumously awarded a royal pardon in 2013, 59 years after his death. In 2009 Prime Minister Gordon Brown had highlighted the tremendous debt Britain owed Turing for his work at Bletchley Park during the war, deciphering the Germans’ Enigma code. His contribution to the allied victory was immense. He went on to develop the rudiments of computer science, information technology, and artificial intelligence. He wasn’t really a household name until Benedict Cumberbatch played him in the film The Imitation Game in 2014, the year after he was pardoned.
I’m interested in this word “pardon”. How does Chambers define “pardon”?
Verb, transitive, to forgive: to allow to go unpunished: to tolerate… to grant remission of sentence…
Noun, forgiveness, either of an offender or of his offence, remission of a penalty or punishment: forbearance: a warrant declaring a pardon (French, pardonner).
With respect to Alan Turing’s Royal Pardon, you can actually view it on line:
NOW KNOW YE, that We, in consideration of circumstances humbly represented unto Us, are Graciously pleased to extend Our Grace and Mercy unto the said Alan Mathison Turing and to grant him Our Free Pardon posthumously in respect of the said convictions.
Well, Alan Turing cannot be given a remission of punishment; too late for that. It would therefore appear that he is being forgiven. You can see from the dictionary etymology that the English “for-give” and the French “par-donner” are cognate words. Pardon is a generous act of giving. We may pray for forgiveness of sins and believe that a slate is being wiped clean, not through justice, but through Grace. Yet this pardon has been given to Alan Turing precisely because there is nothing to forgive. Alan Turing doesn’t deserve a pardon; he deserves an apology. Were he alive, he might then offer his persecutors his pardon.
With respect to Sir Philip Green, Westminster is again minded to effect a volte-face, and reverse a previous decision. Parliament has debated whether to strip the former BHS boss of his knighthood. The debate was heated, not because there were opposing points of view – nobody spoke up for Sir Philip (although Jacob Rees-Mogg did aver outside Parliament, in his dulcet patrician tones, that it was really none of Parliament’s business) – but because many MPs were speaking up for constituents who had lost their jobs, and maybe their pensions. So this was not faux-outrage, but genuine anger that somebody in a position of power and wealth should grossly mismanage a company and bring its employees to ruin. It’s all reminiscent of 2012, when former Royal Bank of Scotland boss Fred Goodwin was stripped of his knighthood when RBS was on the verge of collapse and had to be brought into public ownership. Yet, that Parliament should debate whether Sir Philip’s Honour should stand or fall is almost unprecedented. Only the Honours Forfeiture Committee is in a position to withdraw an Honour. Yet no doubt Parliament can bring pressure to bear.
What is the connection between Alan Turing’s rehabilitation and Sir Philip Greene’s putative excommunication?
It lies in the subtext. Both represent the establishment’s attempt to rewrite history. I can’t help feeling that the establishment is not so much interested in forgiving Alan Turing, as in forgiving itself. It has occurred to them that Turing was treated abominably. Much has been made of Turing’s contribution to society and to the country. Mathematical genius who – some people go so far as to say – won the war. Yet if he had been a coal miner or a brick layer, or for that matter a vagrant or a drug addict, would his treatment have been any less abominable? We may look askance at the attitudes of sixty years ago but we cannot change them. That which happened can be regretted, but it cannot be reversed.
With respect to withdrawing an Honour from a disgraced individual, I can’t help feeling that this has little to do with punishing an individual, and everything to do with rewriting history for the benefit of the great Ship of State. The establishment loves to associate itself with the great and the good. Successful entrepreneurs, Captains of Industry, billionaire tycoons, rock stars, superstars, masters of the universe… The establishment loves to woo such people in the hope that some of their glitter rubs off. It’s a way of increasing establishment’s power and prestige and thereby bolstering its foundation and ensuring its continuity.
But once you blot your copy book, commit a misdemeanour, shame yourself, they will drop you, with the sanctimonious zeal of the Pharisees, like hot coals. But not without first taking back their gong. That man is not a knight. He was never a knight. It never happened.
We are far more likely to learn from the past if we don’t try to muddy it. In the past, a man was handed down a criminal conviction and another received a knighthood. These things happened. Don’t tinker with history. The past is irrevocable.