In the past few weeks, a proposal has been aired by several prominent public figures to ‘begin a discussion about pardoning all the men, alive or deceased, who like Alan Turing were convicted under the UK’s Gross Indecency law and other discriminatory anti-gay legislation’.
Phew! This particular law emanates from 1885; homosexual acts between consenting adults in private were decriminalised in Britain eighty-two years later, though outdoor importuners and those lured into public conveniences via police honey-traps continued well into the 1990s (remember George Michael’s infamous ‘lapse’?); that’s more pardons to get through than the aftermath of a dinner party hosted by the Heinz Beans Appreciation Society. When John Wolfenden made his recommendations to reform the homosexual laws a decade before they finally were reformed, British prisons still contained over a thousand men held on charges relating to these laws. Who wants to nominate themselves to begin noting down the names and addresses of those incarcerated in 1957 alone?
The treatment Alan Turing received was indeed appalling, particularly for a man whose contribution to ending the Second World War was arguably as significant as any general or ground-force troop; but it has to be remembered that the brutal punishment dished out to him was a consequence of the law at the time. He wasn’t alone; he just happened to be someone who achieved something remarkable for his country and the free world, and what happened to him after the war was undoubtedly a poor way of paying him back. Yes, the law that ruined him was wrong, but those who brought the weight of it down upon him were the same people who would have administered the other laws of the time, such as the ones that led to the unjust executions of Derek Bentley and Timothy Evans. If there is a law for a particular offence, it will be enforced to the letter, regardless of how morally dubious. One could argue the current Joint Enterprise law is just as rotten; but it’s still being used to imprison young men who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The need or perceived need to be seen to express contrition for crimes committed in the name of government or state is a fairly recent phenomenon, probably derived from the confessional strain of pseudo-psychological ‘closure’ so beloved of our American cousins. The US film director Spike Lee once opined that all white Americans should issue a public apology for the slave trade; such an apology, had it been forthcoming, may have provided some superficial solace for the descendents of a nineteenth century Southern plantation worker, but as they weren’t the ones who endured what he or she had two-hundred years previously, how could the impact of a belated apology have been anything other than vicarious comfort?
When David Cameron apologised for the Bloody Sunday massacre, forty years might have passed, but it was still well within living memory; families of those who were killed at the scene of one of the blackest watersheds of the Northern Ireland Troubles appreciated the gesture, but failure to apologise in the days following the 1972 incident by the Tory Home Secretary Reginald Maudling had provoked firebrand Ulster MP Bernadette Devlin to assault him on the floor of the Commons, something that elicited no apology on either side. Cameron’s apology followed the long-overdue outcome of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, but (as far as I’m aware) there has been no inquiry into Bloody Friday, when the IRA detonated twenty-six separate bombs in eighty minutes during one awful afternoon in Belfast six months after Bloody Sunday, resulting in nine deaths.
However, are we to judge all the atrocities of the Troubles as acts of war, something that has also resulted in no charges ever being brought against the French Police for the 1961 Paris Massacre, when an estimated 200 demonstrating Algerians were slaughtered on the streets of the French capital? This terrible event, barely known outside France, has long been regarded by the French authorities as part of the Algerian War of Independence; and even though the Paris Massacre took place outside of Algeria, all of France’s colonies were viewed as sharing the soil of the mother country, a caveat that cannily avoids it being classed as an illegal peacetime action.
This is the problem with pardons or public apologies years after the event. Yes, all of the examples given are horrible; but they each fell within the remit of the law as it stood at the time. One particular law cannot be singled out for special treatment; if you’re going to discredit one law for miscarriages of justice, you have to discredit them all. In early eighteenth century Britain, there were over two-hundred offences punishable by death, including one of ‘strong evidence of malice in a child aged 7-14 years of age’. How many children went to the gallows for that one? Surely they deserve pardoning? And what of all those who were deported to Australian penal colonies when the death penalty was abolished for the more minor offences? The Holocaust is rightly remembered as the crime against humanity it was, but genocide was not invented by the Nazis; one could argue the Americans had a fairly good crack at it where Native American tribes were concerned. So, how far back are we to go? Is it time for the Queen to pardon Joan of Arc?
There is also an element of such high-profile apologies being inspired by whatever happens to be the resurrected cause of the moment, especially one brought to the attention of vote-seeking politicians by popular celebrities with a conscience. At worst, they can be seen as token gestures to appease the reawakened outrage of the masses, and they come across as no more convincing or heartfelt than a sullen adolescent being forced to say ‘sorry’ by a parent in front of the teacher they took the piss out of on Facebook.
Like hanging a killer, a pardon won’t bring back the dead; there can be a dozen different lobby groups demanding backdated justice for the long-gone victims of various historical crimes, but a Prime Minister standing up in the Commons and issuing an apology is ultimately worthless. Such a statement, whether apology or official pardon, can only serve to make those who granted it feel good about themselves by doing the right thing where their predecessors didn’t. David Cameron can declare himself a better man than Edward Heath because of his Bloody Sunday apology, but where be the apology for the numerous crimes committed on Cameron’s watch? Expect one of his predecessors to make amends around 2055.