Sorry for what?

The pardon game

sorry about what? sorry about what?

Maths is a funny old subject, it has many enemies, usually this anti feeling starts at school and continues into adult life. There is the joke: “if I try to do mental arithmetic it makes my brain bleed”. But many people do excel at this subject, Alan Turing was exceptional. His progress through school and beyond was in fact hampered by this ability as it drew unfavourable comment from the masters. It also stood in the way of him getting a place at his first choice of college at Cambridge.

However, soon this very same ability allowed him to study in the USA and in the summer of 1938 he obtained his PhD from Princeton. Turing began work at Bletchley Park upon the outbreak of war and was involved with their work, but not always at Bletchley, until the war was over. He remained a computer pioneer and was working at Manchester University from 1948 onwards, but in 1952 his life fell apart.

Turing was convicted for gross indecency, homosexuality was a crime in those days. He could have faced a prison sentence but avoided this by electing to take form of hormone treatment stipulated by the court. There were both physical and mental side effects to this and in mid 1954 pushed by a combination of events to his limit he committed suicide.The finest account of his life is by Andrew Hodges, himself a mathematician.

For people with an interest in these things the truth has been available for years, Hodges' book on Turing was published in 1992. Turing is now back in the news, there is a petition hoping to get him a posthumous apology for his prosecution in 1952 and for the side effects of the hormone treatment. It's at this point that a new dimension begins; much as Turing made tangible discoveries, what is, precisely, the benefit in issuing an apology about the death of a man some 55 years ago?

In direct contrast to the world of mathematics, here, with its impossible to define motives, is a manifestation of our age and as sinister as it can get. The act of apology on a grand scale, one nation to another, or at the level of a nation to an individual, is hype and there had to be a backlash. Once Gordon Brown got in on the act and announced he was “proud to say sorry” you knew the whole affair had been comprehensively devalued. Proud to say sorry yes, but canny enough to cash in as well.

There has been a wealth of forum comment on this subject, a significant part of the general public having great sympathy for Turing but with conditions attached. Put simply it seems that they as individuals feel no compulsion to apologise but don't mind if the state does. This solves nothing. Then on whose behalf is the state apologising? So the apology by Brown is entirely personal and has no legitimacy beyond that, yet its presentation, as might be expected, was muddled.

How far will this fetish with apology go, in 50 years' time will the political descendants of Nulabour apologise for denying the UK a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty? Much as to be expected the unelected Deputy Prime Minister has got in on the act. Lord Peter Longtitle wants the 'Phoenix Four' to apologise for their actions. To explain this we go back to the collapse of MG Rover at Longbridge, Birmingham in mid 2005.

Nulabour came to power in 1997 so had 8 years to take note of the state of the company prior to its collapse. The Phoenix group were not the only people interested in MG Rover, so was Alchemy then run by Jon Moulton. Why did the government select Phoenix? As Alchemy intended to close down Rover production and concentrate on MG it was unpopular with the local Nulabour MPs. But time has shown that to have dismissed this plan in this way was foolish as the Alchemy group has a good business record. By being unrealistic and pretending the whole of the MG Rover group could be saved, the government fell into the trap of its own making; the 2005 collapse came just before a general election.

The embarrassment and anger felt by Nulabour, for that is at the root of the enquiry, means that after 4 years and a cost of £16 million to the taxpayer an official 850 page report has now been published - at almost £19,000 per page - you could buy a decent car for that sort of money! What a strange document it is, it has cost a great deal and achieves nothing, it's unlikely that anyone will go to prison or be punished in any way. An accusation made in the report is that one of the 'four' destroyed key documents prior to the enquiry. Well Tony Blair shredded documents before leaving office which will make the enquiry into the invasion of Iraq awkward, he even added the cost of shredding to his MP's expenses!

Also in the report is the comment, seized upon by Mandelson, that the Phoenix Four paid themselves too much, coming from a man who is supposed to have no problem with people getting very rich this is the height of hilarity; mind you they were not his 'friends', but should this matter? Also repeated efforts to get Brown to apologise for his part in the collapse of the UK economy have failed, so fat chance of the bankers of failed banks admitting their guilt and the Phoenix Four likewise.

The fact is the pardon game is a modern phenomena of almost no value and little sincerity and not a black or white issue; I bet the relatives of Turing wonder if his memory is being best served by all of this.

For more on the MG Rover story see HERE.