In July I argued against Lord Sharkey’s proposed statutory pardon for Alan Turing, for a number of reasons.
First, the pardon proposed was not intended to affect Turing’s conviction. I wondered why not. Although the Crown’s prerogative power to grant a pardon is traditionally limited to miscarriage of justice cases
once Parliament decides it should act, there’s no reason for it to feel bound by the limitations of prerogative powers. Parliament is sovereign. If MPs and peers want, by Act of Parliament, to disregard Alan Turing’s conviction, they can do so. So why don’t they? …
Parliament can, if it likes, retrospectively repeal the legislation under which he was convicted, and make everything done under it a legal nullity (if need be making clear that no legal action can now be taken against anyone for anything they did under it).
More importantly, I thought the proposal wasn’t about Alan Turing at all, but about us:
Peers and the government just want to do something symbolic. But who benefits from the symbolism? Not Alan Turing. This pardon, well-intentioned though it undoubtedly is, is not only pointless but self-indulgent. It would make only us only feel that we’re relieved of the burden of the past.
Well, now there’ll be no statutory pardon at all. Instead the Queen has granted one under the prerogative power of mercy, on the advice of the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling. In reality, the government has decided unilaterally to pardon Alan Turing.
If anything, there’s even more reason to object to this than there was to Lord Sharkey’s bill, whose second reading government whips objected to in the Commons last month. Lord Dubs complained about that in the House of Lords the following week, and last night Lord Bassam made the same point on Twitter:
Glad that Alan Turing has finally been granted a pardon. But why did Tories in the Commons block the bill giving him a pardon last month?
— Steve Bassam (@SteveTheQuip) December 24, 2013
This pardon won’t touch Turing’s conviction any more than the statutory one would have. But the new argument against the government’s approach is that, in order to claim the main credit for this PR gesture, it’s had to monkey with the traditional grounds for exercise of the prerogative of mercy.
The reason Lord Sharkey introduced his bill was precisely because a Royal pardon wasn’t an option. As the then justice minister Crispin Blunt explained in the Commons
It is the long-standing policy not to exercise the royal prerogative of mercy where a person was correctly convicted under thelaws that existed at the time. The applicant must be technically and morally innocent, as my hon. Friend has said. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South has said that we should clear Alan Turing’s name. A pardon under the royal prerogative of mercy would not actually affect Alan Turing’s conviction; only a court can quash a conviction and, in that sense, clear someone’s name.
Much as we now feel it outrageous that Alan Turing’s behaviour was treated as a criminal offence, he was guilty of the contemporary offence. To grant him a pardon under the royal prerogative would change the basis on which such pardons are normally given.
How does the government explain this departure from its own policy? In its press release, it says
A pardon is only normally granted when the person is innocent of the offence and where a request has been made by someone with a vested interest such as a family member. Uniquely on this occasion a pardon has been issued without either requirement being met, reflecting the exceptional nature of Alan Turing’s achievements.
Turing’s achievements, then, provide the only reason for doing this; and no reason whatever is given for the suggestion that this pardon be unique.
But why should mercy be so strain’d? If the prerogative can now be exercised in favour of one man convicted historically under a law we now think oppressive and wrong, why shouldn’t all those convicted under the same law be treated the same? Why shouldn’t those convicted of abortion-related offences in the middle of the twentieth century be pardoned too? And why not those convicted of witchcraft-related offences in centuries gone by? Many if not all those victims of lawful atrocity must have been tortured before being killed. Ministers surely can’t deny them pardons just by asserting that Alan Turing is “unique”. That’s a question-begging reason, so no reason at all. Why is Turing “unique”?
Even if some new, wider approach to mercy applies only to offences of gross indecency (which would be hard to defend rationally), and only applies to people of exceptional achievement (why should it?), there’s still the case of Oscar Wilde to be considered. I suppose an argument could be made – I certainly wouldn’t make it myself – that Wilde’s plays, poetry, essays and fiction are minor achievements compared to Alan Turing’s. But whatever you think about that, the prerogative of mercy should not depend on a cabinet game of Great Britons. If it’s right to grant this pardon at all, then some conception of justice should motivate it, not one person’s arguably unique individual merit.
But the pardon’s wrong anyway. Alan Turing was a great man, treated with shameful cruelty and ingratitude by this country. We ought to feel shame and sorrow about that, now and every time his name is mentioned in future. One of the objectionable things about this pardon is that on some dimly-perceived cultural level it implies official permission to stop feeling that way; it’s a formal announcement that something’s been put right, as though the Alan Turing story can be rewritten with a happy ending. But unless you get your moral sentiments from Hollywood you know nothing’s been put right or ever will be, and that it’s no good cheering ourselves up by pretending it has.
I’m against this irregular, irrational and arbitrary prerogative pardon, even more than I was against the proposed statutory pardon I wrote about in July.