The government has announced that thousands of gay and bisexual men who were convicted under laws criminalising homosexual acts are to be pardoned.
This is wrong, indeed offensive.
To pardon someone is to forgive a wrong. So, a monarch may pardon a criminal, relieving them from sanction. If we “forgive those who trespass against us” we relieve another from the wrong they have committed. There may be good reasons for doing so, but we can only pardon if there is a wrong to forgive. A necessary implication of “I pardon you” is to implicitly say that a wrong has been suffered.
The laws in place in the United Kingdom criminalising homosexual acts were wrong and barbaric. Such consensual acts between people of the same sex wronged nobody. There were no good public policy reasons for criminalising their actions. Those who were convicted were themselves the victims of a wrong. There is nothing for the state to forgive or pardon, indeed to say that there is is to (literally) add insult to injury.
How then should the government respond to this past injustice?
What it should do is retrospectively decriminalise these offences. In England, consensual homosexual acts between men were only decriminalised in 1967 (shockingly, it remained criminal in Scotland until 1980, and in Northern Ireland until 1982). This legislation was prospective only. Such behaviour after the legislation was passed ceased to constitute a crime. What the legislature should now do is retrospectively repeal what should never have been criminal at all.
Why does the government not wish to do that? Because if it did so, those who were wrongfully treated would have a claim from the date of repeal for their wrongful treatment (time would only start to run against them from the moment of repeal, as that would be the first time they could sue for their wrongful imprisonment and other forms of mistreatment). If the view is taken that compensation should not be payable, because too much time has now passed, that should be incorporated into any Act retrospectively repealing these offences.
But a pardon, by the UK government? The only people who have the capacity to forgive are the victims of this injustice: the men wrongfully convicted.