Leopold Abse (22 April 1917 – 19 August 2008) was a Welsh lawyer, politician and gay rights campaigner. He was a Welsh Labour Member of Parliament for nearly 30 years, and was noted for promoting private member's bills to decriminalise male homosexual relations and liberalise the divorce laws. Following his retirement from Parliament he wrote a number of books about politics based on his interest in psychoanalysis
Family and background
Leo Abse was the son of Rudolf Abse, a Jewish solicitor and cinema owner who lived in Cardiff. His younger brother Dannie Abse is a well known poet; his older brother Wilfred Abse (1915-2005) was an eminent psychoanalyst. Abse attended Howard Gardens High School in Cardiff followed by the London School of Economics where he studied law. Having joined the Labour Party in 1934, he clandestinely visited Spain during the closing months of the Spanish Civil War in 1939.
During World War II Abse served in the Royal Air Force. He was serving in Cairo in 1944 when the British forces stationed there set up a 'Forces Parliament' in which they debated the structure of society they wanted to see in the post-war world. Abse's idealistic left-wing views were fully in tune with the majority opinion among the lower ranks but the existence of the Parliament disturbed the more senior officers; when Abse moved a motion to nationalise the Bank of England he was arrested and the Forces Parliament was forcibly dissolved.
After the end of the war, Abse set up in practice as a solicitor in Cardiff. By 1951 he had a sufficiently good relation to establish his own law firm, Leo Abse and Cohen, which eventually grew to be the biggest in the City. He was also elected as Chairman of Cardiff Labour Party for two years from 1951, giving up the post when he was elected to Cardiff City Council. Abse fought the then safe Conservative seat of Cardiff North in the 1955 general election.
Daniel Granville West, the Labour MP for Pontypool, was awarded a life peerage in the first appointments in 1958. Although Pontypool was a South Wales valleys area, the National Union of Mineworkers was not in control of the nomination (Granville West was also a solicitor), since Pontypool was also a centre of the railway industry and its powerful unions, and Abse was selected to succeed him as the Labour candidate at the by-election. He easily retained the seat.
Abse swiftly acquired a reputation for independence of spirit. He made a point of dressing flamboyantly on Budget day, and liked to drop references from Freudian psychotherapy into his speeches which had partly been learned from Professor Wilfred Abse, his elder brother and a professional psychiatrist. Although his abilities might have taken him to high office Abse had a complete lack of ambition and never desired anything more than to be a backbench MP. This factor, together with the fact that he had a safe seat, freed him from the restrictions which prevented other MPs taking up controversial subjects.
In 1963 he was selected in third place in the ballot for Private Member's Bills and introduced the Matrimonial Causes Bill which simplified and made easier the legal process of divorce. His effective advocacy of the Bill ensured that it passed and was made law.
In 1973, he also "requested that the government ban the group [the Alice Cooper group] from performing in England, claiming that Alice was 'peddling the culture of the concentration camp.' Said Abse, 'Pop is one thing, anthems of necrophilia are quite another'". (Source: booklet of "The life and crimes of Alice Cooper" 4 CD box set.)
Homosexual law reform
In 1957 the Wolfenden report had recommended that the law be changed to legalise consenting male homosexual sex, but the government had taken no action. Based on his knowledge of psychiatry, Abse could not understand the reason for prohibiting gay sex and began to promote a Bill to put the Wolfenden recommendations into law in February 1962. He kept pressing the issue, and when Humphry Berkeley (Conservative MP for Lancaster) lost his seat in the 1966 general election Abse became the main sponsor for the legalisation. Although with the Labour landslide there was a majority for the Bill it was still vulnerable to procedural tricks; Abse managed to outwit opponents and persuaded Roy Jenkins to give the measure government time, which eventually saw the Bill through onto the statute book.
Abse's views on homosexuality were strongly influenced by his knowledge of psychotherapy. He argued that an obsession with the question of punishment of homosexuals "has hitherto prompted us to avoid the real challenge of preventing little boys from growing up to be adult homosexuals. Surely, what we should be pre-occupied with is the question of how we can, if it is possible, reduce the number of faulty males in the community." Abse put his arguments in this way partly to ensure that those MPs who were inclined to vote for the Bill did not feel they were endangering their masculinity but mostly because he had a view that "those who do not procreate are deprived or stunted" (the analysis of Antony Grey, who was leading the lobbying efforts of the Homosexual Law Reform Society and worked closely with him).
Other issues taken up by Abse included ending capital punishment. During the Six Day War he made a passionate attack on those Labour MPs who had supported the Arab cause. In 1968 he was appointed to a Home Office advisory committee on the penal system. As a sign of his popularity he was elected Chairman of the group of Welsh Labour MPs in 1971; he was already well enough known to write his autobiography Private Member in 1973.
Abse was an opponent of devolution when it was proposed in the late 1970s. He also proposed a separate referendum on whether the Shetland Islands ought to be part of a devolved Scotland. Abse was briefly Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee when it was first set up but resigned in November 1981.
One of the reasons he opposed devolution was because he thought some in Wales wanted to use devolution to promote the use of the Welsh language whom he described as 'fanatics'. He opposed in particular proposals for criminal juries comprising only Welsh speakers, and described Welsh language television as an 'expensive farce' and a 'gravy train'.
Because of his position as an independent-minded backbencher, Abse was chosen to be Chairman of a Select Committee on abortion from 1975 to 1977. His report advocated restrictions on abortion including a lowering of the time limit within which abortion was legal from 28 weeks. He fought in the House of Commons for the enactment of his committee's recommendations, and continued the fight in 1980 when Conservative MP John Corrie proposed a Bill along similar lines: he refused to compromise on a limit of 24 weeks.
Other political stances
Abse added to his reputation for taking maverick stances by strongly urging British forces be withdrawn from Northern Ireland. He opposed nuclear power and nuclear weapons, and criticised Margaret Thatcher for insisting that Argentina unconditionally surrendered over the Falkland Islands. However, he supported British membership of the European Communities. His support for liberal divorce laws led him to propose a new 'child-centred' divorce reform in the early 1980s; the Bill was piloted by Martin Stevens, Conservative MP for Fulham.
Later political and literary career
After fighting off unwelcome boundary changes in 1983, Abse was elected for the newly-named seat of Torfaen. He retired from Parliament in 1987 and in his retirement took to writing books based on his interest in psychoanalysis. The first, Margaret, Daughter of Beatrice (1989), was a 'psycho-biography' of Margaret Thatcher, and took its title from the observation that while Mrs Thatcher frequently referred to her father, she claimed not to have had anything to say to her mother from the age of 15.
In Wotan, My Enemy (1994) Abse took a psychoanalytic approach to try to explain the origin of British hostility to Germany and the idea of the European Union. In The Man behind the Smile, subtitled Tony Blair and the Politics of Perversion (1996), Abse adopted a similar approach to his biography of Margaret Thatcher, and highlighted some of the character aspects of Blair which were later to be cited by his opponents on the left (the book was revised in 2003 under the title Tony Blair: The Man who lost his Smile and the revised edition was published in the United States).
Abse took the opportunity of the reissued book to claim that he had paid off a blackmailer who had been targeting his fellow Welsh MP George Thomas (Speaker of the House of Commons from 1976 to 1983), on the basis of Thomas' homosexuality. This revelation was criticised as being in poor taste by some of Thomas' friends who disputed that he was gay.
In Fellatio, Masochism, Politics and Love (1997) Abse drew attention to the fact that fellatio had been unspoken of a generation before but had since become an essential part of casual sexual relationships. He analysed the tendency for men to engage in risky behaviour by placing their trust in women whom they barely know, and also linked it to political developments. The book was published in the United States in 2000 shortly after the scandal of Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky had been revealed.
- Private Member (Jonathan Cape, London, 1973)
- Margaret, Daughter of Beatrice (Jonathan Cape, London, 1989)
- Wotan, My Enemy (Robson Books, London, 1994)
- The Man behind the Smile (Robson Books, London, 1996)
- Fellatio, Masochism, Politics and Love (Robson Books, London, 1997)
- Tony Blair: The Man who lost his Smile (Robson Books, London, 2003)