Alan Mathison Turing was born in 1912. He grew to become a brilliant mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst and computer scientist. During World War II, Turing was headhunted by the British security services and deployed to Bletchley Park, where he was responsible for forming the “Bombe” method, a machine which cracked the German ‘Enigma’ cypher machine. Turing’s ‘A-machine’ formulated the basis of computer algorithms, which was to become the prototype for all computers to follow, even the one you are reading this on right now. He is widely regarded as the father of modern computing.
Alan Turing was a gay man (and something of a cutie, as you can see from his picture), which after the war came to the notice of the authorities, homosexuality being illegal in the UK during his lifetime. He was arrested, charged, tried and found guilty of homosexuality in 1952. His security clearance was revoked and he agreed to chemical castration in the form of hormone treatment as an alternative to imprisonment. The injections of estrogen involved only served to feminise him and to cause him to grow breasts, leading to depression. Alan Turing was found dead from cyanide poisoning in 1954. An inquest determined suicide, although his mother and some others believed his death was accidental.
As a side note, it is quite ironic that homophobes worldwide who today spout their poisonous bile across the internet, would not be able to do so were it not for this tragic gay genius. And it is doubtful those in the UK would even have been conceived, let alone born, had Turing not broken the Nazi enigma code, thus giving the allies a huge advantage in WWII.
In 2009, then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, following an internet campaign, gave a public apology on behalf of the government concerning the way Alan Turing was treated. In May 2012 a Private Members Bill was put before the House of Lords in the UK parliament to grant Turing a statutory pardon. This gained support in July 2013 but instead of calling for a second reading in the House of Commons, the government instead opted for a posthumous pardon under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, which was signed to have immediate effect on 24 December 2013.
On Sunday, 29 December 2013, actress Maureen Lipman suggested that, given his work during World War II, his advancement of computers and his despicable treatment at the hands of the British state, Alan Turing should receive a posthumous knighthood.
There are several problems with this. For a start, when someone is made a knight in England, they automatically become a member of the Order of Bath, which they cease to be upon their death. Effectively this means that when a knight dies, they are no longer a knight. Thereby, nobody dead can be a knight. This is why when the former TV personality and charity campaigner Jimmy Saville was exposed after death as Britain’s worst ever peadophile sex offender (over 300 cases and still rising), there was no need to strip him of the knighthood he received in life; it had already been stripped from him the moment he died.
Of course, it could be argued that the rules governing knighthoods could be changed, to include posthumous knighthoods. The first problem with this is that the Order of Bath (and the Order of the Thistle in Scotland) only have a finite number of places for people to become knights. One of the very reasons that knighthoods are removed upon death is to make room in the Honours List for new knights. Moreover, however, is that bestowing a posthumous knighthood is to automatically assume that the deceased would have accepted the honour. Not all offered honours accept them. Alan Turing was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) during his life. But can we really be sure, especially given his treatment at the hands of the very establishment he helped save from Nazi rule, that he would have accepted a knighthood?
There are many other arguments against posthumous knighthoods. If it were able to award them posthumously, then it would logically follow that you could remove them posthumously. I alone can think of quite a few I would have stripped of their knighthoods, beginning with that odious, elitist, racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Scottish alcoholic, Winston Churchill. It is also interesting to note that there were already moves to give Alan Turing a posthumous knighthood when the public apology was given in 2009, but many within the establishment, including the UK Head of State, Queen Elizabeth II, were against such a move.
Most of all however, I am opposed to giving Alan Turing any form of posthumous honour on the grounds that it would serve no purpose to him, or his surviving family. Instead it would merely be a salve for the national conscience. And even then, it would be for one gay man only. It would say nothing for the 75,000 gay men who were persecuted and prosecuted for nothing more than their completely natural sexual orientation. That is also why Gordon Brown’s apology and the UK governments posthumous pardon to Alan Turing were equally meaningless. Either apologise to and pardon all 75,000 of them, or apologise to and pardon none. And I am sure Alan Turing would have been the first to agree with me upon that point.