On this, the centenary of some women getting the right to vote, there has been a lot of talk of pardoning the suffragettes. Jeremy Corbyn and Ruth Davidson have both said they back the idea, and the Home Secretary Amber Rudd has said she’ll look into it. But pardoning the suffragettes would be wrong. For many of them deliberately chose to be arrested and to go to jail to highlight the injustice they were fighting. The present has no right to reach back into the past and wipe their convictions, in both senses of the word, from the record.
Take Christabel Pankhurst who, in 1905, deliberately assaulted a policeman, albeit only by spitting at him, with the aim of being arrested. She then refused to pay the fine so that she would be sent to prison. It wouldn’t be right for the current government to, in effect, strike out this episode by pardoning her. It would ignore the fact that Christabel Pankhurst wanted to be arrested and sent to prison. She was not looking for a pardon but a change in the law. She was quite prepared to be labelled a criminal to advance her cause.
What distinguishes Christabel Pankhurst’s case from that of, say, Alan Turing is that he was not seeking to be arrested for being gay. Tellingly, Turing accepted chemical castration to avoid being sent to prison: he was not seeking to become a political prisoner. Pardoning Turing didn’t deny him his agency in the way that pardoning the suffragettes would.
Today, we are celebrating the right of women to vote, to have a say in their society’s future. It is hard to think of a more inappropriate way to mark that moment than by the government reaching back into the past and taking away from the suffragettes their ability to use the law to highlight the injustice that they were fighting.
Striking these convictions from the record might make contemporary society feel better. But it won’t, and can’t, change the fact that these women were sent to prison. It would be far better for these convictions to prick our consciences than for a mass pardon to be issued.