Making change from the backbenches

Leo Abse was arguably the 20th century’s most influential backbench member of parliament. Born in Cardiff on 22 April 1917, he read law at the London School of Economics. During the second world war, he served in the RAF, and was in Egypt when the ‘Forces Parliament’ met in 1944 to debate what the postwar world would look like. In 1951 he set up his own solicitors’ firm, Leo Abse & Cohen. He served as a Cardiff councillor for five years in the 1950s, and stood as parliamentary candidate for Cardiff North in the 1955 general election. While he was defeated, he entered parliament at the Pontypool by-election of 1958.

He remained an MP for 29 years, and never sought ministerial office. Rather, he carved out a career as a promoter of a wide range of causes, often controversial. His contributions to parliament were on a wide range of issues from industrial injuries and damages paid to widows, to family planning, disability, penal reform, suicide and genetic engineering.

His milestone 1967 sexual offences bill, which reached the statute book in July of that year, decriminalised private homosexual acts between two men over the age of 21. Piloting it through the Commons was not easy; as Abse had observed, ‘The 1959-64 Parliament was overwhelmingly opposed to the recommendations of the Wolfenden Report urging that homosexual acts in private between adults should no longer be criminal offences’ (Leo Abse, Private Member (London: Macdonald and Company (Publishers) Ltd, 1973, p.145).

Abse was also instrumental in the passage of the Divorce Reform Act of 1969. Abse’s aim was to liberalise the divorce laws so that people did not remain trapped in marriages where the relationship had completely broken down. He persuaded the then MP for Rhondda West, Alec Jones, who had come ninth in the ballot for private members’ bills, to sponsor the bill: ‘Alec Jones yielded to my plea, and we began together the final assault to  release many from scandal and bondage’ (Leo Abse, Private Member (London: Macdonald and Company (Publishers) Ltd, 1973, p.185).

Perhaps fittingly, it was Abse who completed the work of another great crusading reformer, Sydney Silverman, who had campaigned over a number of decades for the abolition of the death penalty. As Abse put it in his book on Tony Blair, The Man Behind The Smile (London: Robson Books Ltd, 1996, p.189), ‘During the last debates in the Commons on the abolition of capital punishment, it fell to me after Sidney Silverman , the renowned abolitionist had died, to steer the House to an acceptance of the proposition that the temporary suspension of state strangulation should be made final …’  Later, his concerns about fostering and adoption found expression in the Children Act of 1975, enhancing the rights of children.

After standing down from parliament in 1987, Abse then devoted his time to writing books, specialising in psychoanalysis of leading politicians, including Margaret Thatcher and Blair. In one television interview in his later life, he claimed his books were far more significant that the legislation he had put through the House of Commons. While his books certainly attracted many readers, he was surely wrong in this judgment: Abse’s social reforms transformed the lives of millions of people.

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Nick Thomas-Symonds is the author of Attlee: A Life in Politics. He writes the Labour history column for Progress and tweets @NThomasSymonds

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Photo: lgf.og.uk

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