Friday, September 11, 2009


I see Gordon Brown has issued "an apology" to Alan Turing, for the persecution he suffered at the hands of the British government.

That's all nice and peachy, but it does raise the question: "What exactly is an apology for?" It's a bit late for Turing, who's been pushing up daisies this half-century or more. Gordon Brown was less than three years old when Turing died, which makes his personal complicity a bit tenuous, and his contrition a bit - contrived. None of the officials who had anything to do with his case are still alive - or if they are, they're understandably keeping their heads down.

Such belated apologies are all the rage lately. When Tony Blair came to power in 1997, practically the first thing he did was to apologise for Britain's actions in the Irish potato blight. The Australian prime minister apologised for the treatment of aborigines; the Japanese government issued an apology to the "comfort women" of those parts of Asia occupied during the war; Pope John Paul II apologised for many of the past crimes committed in the name of the Catholic Church, with particular reference to women, "other Christians" and Jews. Last year, the Church of England issued an apology to Charles Darwin, and earlier this year, the US Congress apologised for slavery.

These apologies vary in coherence and usefulness. The Pope's statement was admirably clear as to its goal ("We are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours [Jews] to suffer, and asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood") - but vague as to exactly what he thought he was apologising for.

The Japanese and Australian apologies have been different in that at least some of the victims of their actions are still alive, and the governments have actually made token gestures towards restitution. It would be going too far to call them "sincere", but they at least seem to have some meaning.

The American apology over slavery, it seems to me, is simply incoherent. Since Congress now represents all Americans, black and white, it follows that part of the nation was apologising to itself. It may express regret, but by "apologising", it seems to me that the US government is implicitly saying "we, a white nation, have done wrong". It would make more sense for Georgia to apologise to the Cherokee over the Trail of Tears - since both the state of Georgia and the Cherokee nation still exist as distinct entities in their own right - but that would inevitably open a whole can of worms about all the Indian nations: treaties broken, wars and war crimes on both sides throughout the 19th century.

Tony Blair's apology over Ireland made more sense: "Ireland" is still a recognisable entitiy, and Blair was the legitimate, linear successor of Lord Russell. However, the timing made it clear that the driving need was not for absolution, but to be seen to make a concession for the sake of peace in Northern Ireland. It was based squarely on the needs of present-day politics, not historical understanding.

The Church of England, for its part, was mostly interested in diverting attention from its internal struggles over gay clergy. The Darwin apology was part smokescreen, part weapon against its own fundamentalists - by reminding them that the Church had erred in the past by being too strict, not the opposite.

And Gordon Brown's is similar. In the wake of the furore over the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Turing apology serves several purposes. It creates some mostly-good press; it subtly reminds the western world in general, and America in particular, that Britain has its own priorities and sense of justice; and it reminds them that there was a time, within living memory, when the whole of the western world - America included - had reason to be very glad of that sense.

Otherwise, it makes little sense. Turing's persecution was not something the government of the day set out to do wilfully or spitefully: in 1952, anti-homosexual attitudes were deeply entrenched in practically all levels of society. Turing was not singled out by an enemy, but prosecuted, quite routinely, by the legal system. It's not the government that owes him an apology: it's the British people. The logical person to apologise to him, on behalf of us all, would be the queen. Not Gordon Brown.

Nor is Brown foreswearing the practice that led to Turing's plight: basing laws solely on public morality, not public welfare. On the contrary, he has presided over a considerable expansion of laws banning things on the basis of nothing more tangible than public disgust.

I firmly believe that this blurring of distinctions between roles - between people, state, and different layers of government - is the cause of most of what's wrong in our world.

Take the al-Megrahi case, for instance. Whether he was guilty or not, he was clearly a scapegoat for his country. We pretended that he alone was responsible for Lockerbie, because we could punish him and then move on with commerce. That's why he was greeted as a hero in his own country, and rightly so. He was a hero - a sacrifice on behalf of his country. That should surely earn him some glory on his return.

And his release - the British and Scots governments alike find it convenient to pretend that this was a purely Scottish legal decision, with no political interference. This is of course garbage - both governments clearly interfered for all they were worth - but by pretending it was "just the normal course of Scottish justice", they both disclaim responsibility, and thus avoid embarrassing questions. It's a trick that successive British governments have used to great effect. Unpopular policies are blamed on Europe, or America, or the World Trade Organization, or some treaty or other. More often than not this is pure smoke; the policy is the government's own.

And even if it isn't, the decision to implement it in this damn' silly way - is.

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