Sunday, July 28, 2019

Turing to be on the Bank of England 50 pound note, giving me an excuse to talk about Turing

BILL: Darling, guess who is soon going to be on the Bank of England 50 pound note?

DARLING: Alan Turing.

BILL: How did you deduce that? (She is right, see here.)

DARLING: Since you asked it, it couldn't be a member of the Royal Family (you don't care about that) or some British Politician (you don't care about that either). It had to be a mathematician or computer scientist.

BILL: It could have been Hardy. I wonder if Ramanujan could qualify---do they need to be British? At this website it says

Of course, banknotes need to be universally accepted. We therefore look for UK characters who have made an important contribution to our society and culture through their innovation, leadership or values. We do not include fictional characters, or people who are still living (except the monarch on the front of the note). Finally, we need to have a suitable portrait of the person which will be easy to recognise.

(They spell recognise with an s instead of a z, so spellcheck flagged it, but I won't change it.)

Note that people on the banknotes have to be UK characters. I honestly don't know if that means they must be citizens.

OKAY, so here are a few thoughts on Turing.

1) When I visited Bletchley Park there was a booklet that bragged about the fact that Bletchley Park was much better at cracking codes than Germany because they allowed people to work there based only on ability (unlike Germany) - women worked there, Turing who was Gay worked there. I think this is simplistic. Did any Jews work there (anti-semitism was widespread in England, and the world, at the time)? I doubt any blacks worked there since if they did that would be well known by now (if I am wrong let me know). Women DID work there but was their work respected and used? (I honestly don't know). Did Germany also use women at their codebreaking centers? Was Turing known to be gay (if not then Bletchley gets no points for tolerating him). Was JUST having Turing the reason they could crack codes. Plus I am sure there were other factors aside from merit-only.

2) Turing was given a Pardon for his ``crimes'' in August 2014. When I see things like this I wonder who was against it and why and if they were an obstacle.

a) Human Rights Advocate Peter Tatchell noted that its wrong to just single out Turing. Other people prosecuted under that law who did not help beat the German's in WW II should also be pardoned. The government later DID such a pardon in 2017.

b) Judge Minister Lord McNally objected to the pardon:

A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence. He would have known that his offence was against the law and that he would be prosecuted. It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence that now seems both cruel and absurd—particularly poignant given his outstanding contribution to the war effort. However, the law at the time required a prosecution and, as such, long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times.

While I disagree with him, I do note that, based on what he wrote and his general record, I think he is not saying this from being anti-gay. There is a hard general question here: how does a society right past wrongs? I think pardoning and apologizing is certainly fine, but frankly it seems to weak. What else could a society due? Financial renumeration to living relatives? I don't think giving Inagh Payne (Turing's niece, who I think is still alive) would really help here.

c) At the bill's second reading in the House of Commons on 29 November 2013, Conservative MP Christopher Chope objected to the bill, delaying its passage

I couldn't find Chope's reasons. On the one hand, they may be similar to McNally's. On the other hand he is against same sex marriage so its possible (though I do not know this) that he anti-gay and that is why he is against the pardon. If someone can find what his explanation for blocking the Turing bill is, or other evidence that he is anti-gay, please leave it in the comments.

3) Did the delay matter? I was surprised to find out---Yes. Here is the full passage from Wikipedia:

At the bill's second reading in the House of Commons on 29 November 2013, Conservative MP Christopher Chope objected to the bill, delaying its passage. The bill was due to return to the House of Commons on 28 February 2014,[175] but before the bill could be debated in the House of Commons,[176] the government elected to proceed under the royal prerogative of mercy. On 24 December 2013, Queen Elizabeth II signed a pardon for Turing's conviction for "gross indecency", with immediate effect.[17] Announcing the pardon, Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling said Turing deserved to be "remembered and recognised for his fantastic contribution to the war effort" and not for his later criminal conviction.[16][18] The Queen officially pronounced Turing pardoned in August 2014.[177] The Queen's action is only the fourth royal pardon granted since the conclusion of the Second World War.[178] Pardons are normally granted only when the person is technically innocent, and a request has been made by the family or other interested party; neither condition was met in regard to Turing's conviction.[179]

This amazed me! I thought the Queen had NO power (too bad--- I wish she could just say NO BREXIT). Or that she formally has power but if she ever used it, it might be blocked somehow and taken away. So I am surprised she has a power she can use at all.

4) I wonder if the Pardon had to happen before they put him on the Banknote. I have been told that this is a very American Question--- England has no Constitution and operates more on Custom and Tradition than on written rules.

5) I had always assumed that Turing committed suicide. Without going into detail, the Wikipedia site on Turing does give intelligent counterarguments to this. See here


  1. Ramanujan being on a pound sterling note would be right up there on the cultural appropriation list with "hot yoga" and "curry powder".

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Please don't shorten his name to Ram, as that's already taken by a god (also spelled Rama in English).

    3. curry powder is cultural appropriation?????????

  2. The MP's WP page says he objects to bills that he views as not having been debated enough, and cites the Turing bill in this regard.

    1. Great! Thanks for giving me what I asked for: Chope's rationale for being against.

  3. (I deleted the comment that used `Ram' and here I report it with `Ramanjuan'. I've also added a bit to the comment.)

    You raise a good question.

    Ramanujan did his work in England with Hardy.
    But he was from India
    So would putting Ramanujan on an English bank note be cultural appropriation?
    So would putting Ramanujan on an English bank note be honoring him?

    Is saying ``Only BRITISH people can be considered worthy of being on the Bank notes''
    a form of chauvinism.

    Is saying ``Only BRITISH citizens can be considered worthy of being on the Bank notes''
    a form of chauvinism.

    Should a countries currencey honor pepole who made a contribution to that country independent
    of what country the people ae from?

    None of these questions is rhetorical.

    1. > Is saying ``Only BRITISH people can be considered worthy of being on the Bank notes'' a form of chauvinism.

      Is saying ``Only BRITISH citizens can be considered worthy of being on the Bank notes''
      a form of chauvinism.

      Personally, I find national symbols (like "famous" people on currency notes) a bit chest-thumpy in our increasingly global world. But given such symbols exist, "British citizens" is an easier standard to define and hold than "British people". Regardless, Ramanujan was neither.

  4. I was slightly bemused by your very American take on Bletchley Park (no offence meant -- it's just very different!). With regards to your question regarding comments on BP's workers, it seems like there was quite a large contingent of Jewish workers. See here for example:

    It's also worth noting that in the 1940's, the UK's resident black population was virtually zero. Indeed, according to Wikipedia, during WWII most of the black population in the UK were the American GI's that were sent over (even in 1950 the resident non-white population was less than 20,000, or less than 0.05%, and almost all of these were people were foreign born so potentially would not have been allowed in highly secretive operation such as codebreaking).

    It's probably worth noting that although antisemitism and other forms of racism were certainly present in the 1940's UK, British and American attitudes towards race vary hugely from each other (both today and back then). No doubt this was due in part to the relatively small non-white population in the UK.

    I can't really find much on the work that women did at Bletchley park, but I suspect that given most women didn't go into higher education it would be fairly limited (though I don't actually know this for certain, but this article seems to back it up: Having said that, it's clear from the article that some women were involved in the actual code-breaking.

    Finally it's also worth noting (indeed it's a point you noted) that the Queen doesn't really hold the power to give pardons -- rather here role is as usual symbolic and she gives an official stamp of approval but holds no de facto power. Much like confirming a new Prime Minister, she can't actually say no (in the sense that if she ever did, it's usually assumed she would be stripped of her ability to say no and then parliament would pass whatever issue they had without her). However, since it's technically a royal prerogative I believe she still technically has to confirm it.

    Feel free to correct me on anything I've missed or made a mistake on!

    1. Thanks for info!
      As for the Queen--- Oh well, I thought this was the last vestige of power she had. But it seems more like saying that the Chief Justice of the Supreme court has the power to swear in the president---its not a power if you have to do it.

      Surprised there were lots of Jewish workers at BP- not surprised that its true, but surprised that I hadn't heard about it. ``Jews help defeat Nazi's via Codebreaking'' would seem to be a thing that would be more well known.
      (Note for later blog topics- things that should be well known but aren't.)