ALAN Turing is sometimes described as the greatest British mathematician of the 20th Century and the father of the computer era, whose outstanding skill at code-breaking probably shortened World War II by two years. But he was convicted of homosexual offences in 1952 and two years later died by cyanide poisoning.
Turing was originally sentenced to prison, but accepted "chemical castration" – a series of oestrogen injections – instead. Even so, he was subjected to extra surveillance by British intelligence, who regarded homosexuals as a security risk, and his working life was made wretched. His suicide, at the age of 42, robbed science and mathematics of a brilliant brain.
The tragedy of Alan Turing is rightly regarded today as a matter of shame and regret. In 2009, then prime minister Gordon Brown apologised for the unjust penalties Turing had undergone, and now the campaign for a retrospective pardon is a step further in rehabilitating a great man.
Yet not everyone favours Prof Hawking's crusade for a pardon. Some believe it isn't honest to try to change the past. If Alan Turing is to be "pardoned" for his homosexual relationships, why not every gay man who lived then?
Apologising for errors and mistakes of history, or perhaps just revisions of attitudes, has become a regular public practice. Sometimes these apologies are useful and help to encourage attitudes of reconciliation, and sometimes such gestures are regarded cynically.
Tony Blair famously apologised for the Irish Famine of 1845-50, and while his words probably had a positive effect on Anglo-Irish relations, they were regarded with a certain cynicism in London political circles. Mr Blair hadn't been responsible for the Great Famine – Lord John Russell, the Whig Prime Minister was rather more in the frame – so what entitled Labour PM Blair to apologise for it?
David Cameron's apology for Bloody Sunday – and his apology last week for the atrocious murder of Pat Finucane – were, in a way, more plausible, as these events took place within living memory and involved still-extant agents of British political power.
The apology for Bloody Sunday helped the work of peace and reconciliation in the North, although there are some who called for London to actively prosecute all serving soldiers involved at the time. Just as, for the Finucane family, only a full public inquiry will satisfy their personal campaign for justice, an apology, or expressions of regret, just aren't enough.
BY THE same token, Alan Shatter's pardon last June of 4,500 Irishmen who deserted the national army to fight for the crown (and the Allies) in World War Two represented a significant change in attitudes.
These men had been harshly treated on their return home, blacklisted and stigmatised, and many spent the rest of their lives marginalised and in poverty. That they made a valiant contribution to what was the defence of democracy is assured, yet there were some people in Ireland who didn't agree with the measure. There were those who felt the soldiers were, nonetheless, deserters, however well-intentioned, and the record of history should not be altered.
The soldiers' pardon almost seeks to delete a historical truth, that the majority of the Irish nation were affirmatively neutral during World War II. The state's prohibitions against violating that neutrality mirrored public opinion then. We are wiser after the event, especially about the odious nature of the Third Reich, but that doesn't change the facts as they were, just as obliterating Alan Turing's criminal conviction doesn't change the fact that the offence existed in law and was prosecuted in law.
Perhaps apologies and pardons are a question of time and perspective, and also, perhaps, a question of usefulness. It was surely useful for Cameron to apologise for Bloody Sunday. But some apologies and retrospective pardons might seem like cheap ways of currying favour.
Maybe a more constructive way of honouring Alan Turing would be to place his statue on the fourth plinth in London's Trafalgar Square, elevating him for his genius rather than singling him out for his sexual orientation.