What if?

0b16b0a3-b600-368f-b615-8d38b43851c5I don’t normally engage in ‘what if?’ reflections, but one has variously struck me.  Alan Turing (pictured) is credited with making a major contribution to shortening World War II by two years or more as a result of his work at Bletchley Park.  Indeed, Baroness Trumpington, who worked at Bletchley, is convinced that without his work we would have lost the war, with the Germans succeeding in starving Britain into submission.  Turing was convicted in 1952 of gross indecency.  His security clearance was revoked.  This point is generally overshadowed by the fact that he subsequently killed himself, but it is very relevant for reflecting on what might have been.  Where would we now be if Turing had been arrested and convicted in 1939?

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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13 Responses to What if?

  1. tizres says:

    Benedict Cumberbatch would be nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Rommel?

    I find it difficult to believe Alan Turing’s homosexuality was completely unknown by those who employed him at Bletchley Park, so the ‘what if’ question does not arise. If it was a revelation then, as you mention, the war might have continued for a while longer. Besides, we can not know whether his presence meant that someone else was elbowed out of the picture, and so Turing might be as responsible for prolonging the war. That’s the thing about these type of questions.

    • Lord Norton says:

      tizres: The ‘what if’ question most certainly does arise. The question was not whether there were suspicions, but the fact of conviction. I think the evidence as to Turing’s unique contribution is fairly well established.

      • tizres says:

        Your emphasis is, then, is not on Turing’s contribution to the war effort – and we can have philosophical musings on that separately – but the fact of his conviction for a crime that was as illegal in 1939 as it was in 1952.

        My original argument is that the establishment were, and are, nifty in deciding who does what, where, and when, regardless of legal niceties. To put it another way, he may well have been convicted in 1939 if there hadn’t been a war; there was, he wasn’t.

        It is perhaps curious to us today that someone didn’t have a quiet word with the police, a particular part of society, at a particular time, who would have relished arresting any man for ‘gross indecency’. Where were his former employers? He would have been of continuing interest to British Intelligence right up to his death,whenever that would have happened. Rather more telling was the change to vetting procedures for British Intelligence employees in 1948, that excluded homosexuals, yet still they kept Turing on the official books until 1952.

      • Lord Norton says:

        tizres: The sheer scale of Turing’s contribution to the war effort was hardly likely to be known in advance. Hence, he is hardly likely to have escaped the clutches of the authorities had they found in 1939 the evidence they uncovered in 1952.

      • tizres says:

        What revelatory evidence was found in 1952?

      • JH says:

        Turing wrote in 1952 “I’ve now got myself into the kind of trouble that I have always considered to be quite a possibility for me, though I have usually rated it at about 10:1 against… a long and fascinating [story]” (http://www.lettersofnote.com/2012/06/yours-in-distress-alan.html).

        The story can be read at http://drvitelli.typepad.com/providentia/2011/04/the-turing-problem.html.

  2. Croft says:

    A few thoughts. Its still disputed if his death was accident or suicide.

    As much as I like BT – his contribution didn’t make the difference on British survival.

    Given where he worked I’m not sure revoking his clearance was anything but sensible. He’d be an obvious blackmail target. Whether if it was during the war they might have been willing to take the risk is another ‘what if’

    • Lord Norton says:

      Croft: I was careful to say that he killed himself. The dispute about whether he killed himself is germane to the rest of what you write as it is not clear that he was particularly uncomfortable with who he was and does not appear to have been at pains to hide his sexuality.

      • Croft says:

        Sure you were careful – but many people may not have seen the distinction and the suicide has become a near universally accepted ‘truth’ such that most people know no different.

        Frankly the pardon/don’t pardon debate that has been running along side this seems to be one of those hard cases make bad law or at least inconsistent and arbitrary law. Personally I tend to feel the past is the past and we shouldn’t try to rewrite the past to suit modern sensibilities. However if we are going to start retrospectively pardoning people or indeed groups for specific crimes then we ought, to my mind, to do this on a consistent basis. There are lots of people convicted of offences that have been abolished – not just the trendy celebrity cause offences.

  3. D F Rostron says:

    Just too big a question “Where would we now be if Turing had been arrested and convicted in 1939?”, change the tense to “Where would we have been if Turing had been arrested and convicted in 1939?” even that is too big, the answer is in deep, deep trouble. The cracking of the Enigma codes was a massive contribution in breaking the hold of the U Boat wolf packs. It was not the sole reason but it was of great importance.

  4. maude elwes says:

    I find this entire discussion rather odd. And my reason for that is, why all this dwelling on and obsession with homosexuality and how a pardon today can be altered in the light of the age he lived in? To try and change history by some kind of ‘cover up’ is the thinking of madmen. Orwell wrote about it.

    First of all this man was a forty year old long known homosexual who, it is suggested, enticed and seduced a 19 year old boy. In his day you were considered underage until 21 years. He carried out the todays equivalent of grooming. He then, according to some reports, after using this person of little mental ability for sex, was fearing the guy was about to expose his seduction by telling the police of the event, which would expose the gross indecency to the world. This prompted Turing, it is said, to set him up on a burglary charge, which he tries to reverse when realising it would expose him further. Sounds very Jeremy Thorpeish to me.

    Here is a different view on this matter.


    If we take this one step further, yesterday I read in the Telegraph some lunatic had been charged with, and found guilty of, sexually molesting a pony. Are we to then expect once this kind of fetish is accepted by our morally peculiar society, the same way these changes to our consciousness have with regard to homosexuality, the laws of today will also be whitewashed in say 50 or 60 years, so this man can be pardoned?. What kind of a nonsense is this? Or, as he is not of the establishment, perhaps he will remain the obscene horse lover.


    It all smells to me of those who were living off the drive to legalise homosexuality having now found, after their years of anguish, they have no cause to fight, And no money to be made as a result. So, this is the next move needed in order to keep the bank account in the black. First this guy then the next. I feel a never ending mission coming on.

  5. Of course The Nazis were led in part by homosexuals who were fairly open and one of their several irregular armies was especially known for it homosexual leadership The SA headed by Rohm and with many other key homosexual leaders was intolerant and bloodthirsty against many people — devoted NAZIs who were murdered, executed and denounced as homosexuals. But the truth may be that had they not been murdered other forms of segregation and coexistence which did exist might have continued. Then history would condemn the Third Reich but never know how bad it would have become had it not allowed very loyal homosexuals to breathe and live and thereby set a precedent for others later exterminated no matter what.
    But if Turing’s arrest had lost Britain the war to the NAZIs we saw at the end then Britain would have been better treated than most countries in NAZI Europe. Edward VII would have been a puppet king for at least a little while, British children would mostly have grown up as devoted NAZIs and war would have gone on with the US and China and a few others supporting a bloody British “unlawful” resistance for decades. The Third Reich would still have reached its predetermined Gotterdammerung but the changes across the world would have been much greater. Britain would not have played the role it did in the second half of the 20th century as the principal broker of a paced transition between world orders. The British Museum would still be trying to recover a few million art objects in the alternative 2015. But in all of those changes nobody would have had any reason to believe Turing’s death or life as a convict in the shadows was of any real significance. The majority of Britons born between 1940 and 1970 would take pride in any action taken by anyone in their line against perceived bad men like this obscure figure whom a few scholars would have heard of in passing..

  6. maude elwes says:

    @LN: Something appears to be wrong with this blog. Again my post of a couple of days ago, this time to this thread, has disappeared. It may well be a different angle on the standard turn out but I wouldn’t think it unreadable. One link came from the Telegraph. The other was not an outlawed site, as far as I know.

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