Alan Turing — [Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:47 pm on 27th June 2012.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton 2:47 pm, 27th June 2012

I congratulate Dr Huppert on securing the debate and making such an excellent and rounded speech about Alan Turing. I suspect that the Hansard reporters are greatly relieved that the hon. Gentleman did not go into more technical detail on some of his papers.

Before I move on to the main body of what I want to say, may I say that the hon. Gentleman is right? The Science and Technology Committee is disappointed that the catapult centres were so named, rather than “Turing centres”. “Catapult centre” is a ludicrous name. If there is anything that this debate should do, it is to integrate the story and memory of Turing more into our national consciousness. The name would be one way to do that. I have certainly tried to do it in Manchester.

I am not usually given to hagiography and apologies or pardons to dead people; they have their place, but I do not see the point. Such is the extraordinary story and tragedy of Turing, however, given both the distinction of his mathematical and scientific mind and the tragic end he came to, that almost anything we can do to commemorate him is worth doing. People may disagree, but of all British scientists, Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell and Alan Turing are probably the most distinguished. There is tough competition. In Manchester alone, we have John Dalton, Joule and Thomson. One can go round the country to see what a fantastic scientific pedigree it has. In my reading of Turing, what he did and the depth in which he thought about problems puts him in that league of the most distinguished.

I really want to make some personal comments about Turing. Although I came from Manchester, I had never heard of him until I was reading a popular book on science and mathematics; it was really more about Gödel and Hilbert. I looked up Turing’s name and found his story, which was so devastating that I set about doing two things.

At the time I was leader of Manchester city council, which was at the centre of the campaign against clause 28 and of anti-discrimination policies across the board. In almost every speech I made, whether it was about the age of consent or clause 28, I told the story of Turing. It was one way of bringing him into evidence. In doing that, I came across a number of people who had worked with him. I was privileged to talk to them about his work and how they had been affected by the man himself and the quality of his work.

I will tell one anecdote about Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw, who was one of those people. Hon. Members may not have heard of her, but she was a distinguished mathematician who led the Conservative group on Manchester city council for a period in the 1970s—which, I am pleased to say, was a pretty thankless task. She had chosen not to go to Bletchley Park during the war because she was having children, but she worked with Turing at Manchester university after that.

What happened to Turing had a huge impact on the 1970s. In the mid-1970s, there was a free vote on Manchester city council to set up the first gay centre in the country. The Liberals, as they were then, were not represented, but the Conservative party and Labour were and both had their bigots. Dame Kathleen’s experience of knowing Turing meant that she was one of the leading Conservatives who voted for the centre, which was not a popular position in the party at the time. There is a straight line running back to that vote in respect of some of the progressive policies that we followed in Manchester.

I did what I could. I supported the raising of funds for the statue of Alan Turing in Sackville park, and we held a moving commemoration there last winter with the author of the main biography of Turing. At one stage, I was also given the delegated power to name the road that now runs past the Etihad stadium in east Manchester. I took the opportunity, against competition from a lot of other names, to call it Alan Turing way. That was in line with every other great scientist who has worked in Manchester, and some who have not, who have had roads, streets and buildings named after them. I was proud to have done that.

I want to finish by saying that the brutality of what happened to Turing at the end—it was more typical of what happened in the 1950s—makes us realise that, although there is little progress in some parts of our society, we have moved on in other areas; we have become much more humane than we were then. I recently spoke at a memorial service in Manchester for a gay activist who, sadly, had died. After the campaigning he had been through in the 1970s and 1980s, he was astonished to find that as he was dying the Cabinet had a policy in favour of gay marriage. It was an extraordinary transition in British society.

I have mentioned a number of great British scientists with whom Turing is comparable, but there is another scientist of a much older vintage who reminds me of him. Archimedes used his profound scientific knowledge to invent a number of instruments with which to defend his city in exactly the way that Turing helped this country to survive and win the second world war. Estimates vary on how much impact Turing’s work had, but he could have saved many hundreds of thousands of lives and shortened the war by two years. When we have a very great scientist who is comparable with Archimedes, we should all work hard to commemorate him, whether it is on bank notes, buildings or roads. His is a profound and sad story.