There’s plenty to criticize about UK prime minister Gordon Brown, and if we start listing the sins of “New Labour” we’ll be here all day.
For a moment, never mind that and read this: an official statement from Brown, on behalf of the United Kingdom, straightforwardly and without euphemism acknowledging that the British mathematician Alan Turing, a hero of World War II, was subjected after the war to grotesque injustice, leading to his death; and that, moreover, this was part of a pattern in which uncounted numbers of gay Britons lived in constant fear of prosecution and ruin.
Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could well have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely. In 1952, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’—in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence—and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison—was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.I reproduce this, not because I think it shows Brown to be a politician of unique courage and vision (he’s not), but because it’s interesting that in at least some parts of the First World, it’s now possible for even national leaders to speak sensibly and straightforwardly about homosexuality and homophobia without the sky falling in on them. I look forward to this spreading to the more backward parts of the globe, such as the United States.
Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.
[…] It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate—by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices—that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years. It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present.
So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.
Moral progress can be spurred by heroes doing heroic things, but we know it’s actually happened when everyday people, including everyday politicians, do the right thing because doing the right thing is simply normal.