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Wednesday 08 October 2008


Obituary: Leo Abse (1917-2008): Hesitant Liberator?

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 22nd August 2008

abse.jpg
Leo Abse (1917-2008)
Leo Abse figured prominently in recent accounts of the anniversary of the first hesitant steps toward full LGBT equality in the United Kingdom. He was the British MP who moved the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which provided partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality.

Abse served in the Second World War. Afterward, he returned to his native Wales to establish a solicitors practice in Cardiff in 1951. In the early fifties, he became a Labour City Councillor in Cardiff, and then became MP for the Welsh electorate of Pontypool in 1958. In addition to the Sexual Offences Act 1967, he also introduced the Matrimonial Causes Act 1963, which simplified divorce procedures in the United Kingdom.

In 1962 and 1965, he unsuccessfully tried to introduce private members bills to decriminalise male homosexuality, but these were unsuccessful. In 1965, a general election intervened, and brought a slate of relatively liberal reformers into Parliament. In 1966, he tried again, and this time, there was sufficient support (244-100) to have it passed on its first reading. Roy Jenkins (Home Secretary) and Richard Crossman (House Majority Leader) suggested that this should be adopted as a government bill to get it out of the way well before the next general election. At the second reading, Crossman and Chief Government Whip John Silkin mobilised Labour support for the bill, with the result of dramatically decreased internal party opposition (194-84). As the Catholic, Anglican, Methodist and Quaker churches all supported decriminalisation, there was little organised religious opposition, although Tory support flagged (with the curious exception of Margaret Thatcher, amongst others, who voted consistently for decriminalisation). Finally, on July 4, 1967, male homosexuality was partially decriminalised in England- Scotland and Northern Ireland would have to wait until 1981-82. As Chris Brickell noted in his recent account of New Zealand gay history, Abse's example also prompted the formation of a counterpart Homosexual Law Reform Society here during the mid-sixties.

In retrospect, as Patrick Higgins suggested when reviewing the history of initial homosexual law reform in the United Kingdom, the Homosexual Law Reform Society did not seek to build a mass movement and press for more radical objectives. As a result, the bill fell considerably short of total equality- it had a grossly unequal age of consent at twenty one (compared to sixteen for heterosexuals), and maintained criminalisation of gay cruising in public areas, multiple sexual partners and within the armed services. All of the above provided obstacles that it took thirty to forty years to resolve for later generations of LGBT Britons.

On other issues, Abse was somewhat conservative. As a Jewish MP, he was understandably angered when other Labour MPs promoted the Palestinian cause after the Six Day War in 1967 at the cost of Israel's national security. He also disliked rocker Alice Cooper's music, and favoured reducing the time limit for legal abortion to twenty four weeks. He opposed devolution of governmental power to Scotland and Wales, as well as government funding for Welsh language cultural activities. However, he also supported an end to Britain's presence in Northern Ireland during the seventies and eighties, and staunchly opposed Britain's continued reliance on nuclear weapons as an element of its national security against potential Soviet and Warsaw Pact attack.

After he retired from Parliament in 1987, Abse began to develop a greater interest in psychoanalysis, and wrote several ensuing books about the psychosocial aspects of contemporary British politics and politicians such as Prime Ministers Thatcher and Blair. One noteworthy volume also took on President Clinton's involvement with Monica Lewinsky, explaining why it was that straight male politicians become involved with risky romantic prospects outside the security and stability of marriage. As one can see, he retained a keen interest in politics until his recent death.

Recommended:

"Coming Out of the Dark Ages" Observer 24.06.07: http://www.guardian.co.uk/gayrights/story/0,2109785,00.html

Patrick Higgins: Heterosexual Dictatorship: Homosexuality in Postwar Britain: London: Fourth Estate: 1996.

Chris Brickell: Mates and Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand: Auckland: Random House: 2008.


Craig Young - 22nd August 2008