Scotland passes ‘Turing’s Law’ to pardon gay men

Vince Cable and Liberal Democrats on Europe March 2017

When I was little, my grandfather got involved in amateur dramatics. He wasn’t very good, but I mention it because the role that I best remember him playing was that of a judge in a play called “Breaking the Code”, about the life and trial of Alan Turing. It was important to grandpa because he had always thought of Alan Turing as a national hero. He felt that his intelligence work at Bletchley had turned the tide of the war in the north Atlantic, where my grandfather was an officer on a destroyer. Grandpa felt that, despite his heroism, Alan Turing had been terribly ill used by the British establishment and the judiciary and that what happened to him ultimately brought about his destruction.

The passage of the Historic Pardons and Disregards (Scotland) Bill by the Scottish Parliament this Month, brings Scotland into line with the rest of the UK in pardoning and disregarding all historic convictions for same sex sexual activity that is now lawful. I was proud of our party when we carried it through Westminster in coalition and I am honoured to have played a part in its passage in Scotland. It is our chance to say to those men, who had felt compelled to live in the shadows due to the stigma of a criminal record that they never deserved. “Step forward. Step forward and receive the justice that has been denied to you; this nation is profoundly sorry for the harm that it has done you.”

It was a delightful Bill to be part of. As the vice convener of Holyrood’s Equalities and Human Rights committee, I had oversight of all stages of the Bill’s passage. In the evidence we gathered we learned that the story of Alan Turing is reflected in those of thousands of men across these islands, both alive and dead, and each one steeped in persecution, in wrongful arrest, and sometimes in tragedy. So if ever there was a piece of legislation designed to right a historic wrong, this was it.

Right out of the traps it became clear that the idea of a pardon on its own was not appropriate. Pardoning someone suggests that you forgive them for whatever it is that they did wrong. Obviously, these men had done nothing wrong and had, as such nothing to be pardoned for. So while legally speaking the pardon is necessary, each applicant will also receive a signed letter of apology from the First Minister of Scotland. We also learned we could not just give an automatic disregard to every man unfairly prosecuted in this way. It is just too difficult to infer what certain convictions meant as many convictions pertaining to same sex intimacy were badged as “breach of the peace” or “gross indecency”, so each pardon and disregard must be determined through a process of application.

We also learned that although there is indeed an understandable impulse to delete this entirely from our records, it would have the effect of creating a revisionist history. This is a stain on our national conscience; it is part of our fabric, and we need to remind future generations of what went before and the suffering of those affected.

Several times I raised the issue of whether the relatively small number of men who would come forward for a pardon should be offered compensation. On this, I and the rest of the committee were struck and indeed humbled by the quiet indifference of those people giving us evidence. Compensation is not what this is about for them. Indeed it had simply never occurred to many of them, which is a measure of their characters and the humble stoicism that they exhibited. In fact, one of the men who still carries a criminal record and gave evidence in private generated a peal of laughter when I asked him whether he felt that compensation should be offered; without missing a beat, he said that we could start by paying back the 40 shilling fine he got for loitering in a public toilet. To offer compensation would create a subjective hierarchy of suffering. It is not what organisations or individuals are looking for; they are looking only for justice.

This was the kind of Bill I came to Parliament to do. It makes the heart sing. My grandfather would be proud of me for playing a small part in its passage, because he gave me my first insight into the persecution that the LGBT+ community has suffered in these islands. We have, in the passage of Scotland’s Turing’s Law, gone some way to atoning for and reversing that suffering.