Leo Abse, by John Roberts. Via the National Library of Wales.
Leo Abse, by John Roberts. Via the National Library of Wales.

For fifty years, Leo Abse’s name has been almost exclusively associated with the partial legalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales. Indeed, in a new HLF-funded exhibition launched by Pride Cymru next week at the Senedd in Cardiff, Abse is identified as one of the Icons and Allies of Welsh LGBT history. But the reality is rather more complex. As a lawyer, Abse campaigned for liberalisation of the laws as a correction of what he regarded as unnecessary criminalisation. Speaking on the BBC in December 1966, as his private member’s bill was being debated in parliament, he asserted the simple reasons for the need to change the law:

It is not a criminal offence to commit adultery. It is not a criminal offence to fornicate. These are not criminal offences according to our law, but the fact that the House of Commons does not make these criminal offences does not mean that we approve of them. And we do not condone homosexuality, what the House of Commons has decided is the homosexual has enough troubles without in addition having the fear and insecurity and the blackmail that arises from the existing law.

Or as he put it in his book, Fellatio, Masochism, Politics and Love, published in 2000:

Our laws relating to divorce, suicide, illegitimacy, adoption and homosexuality were unbecoming to any society claiming to be civilised.

This was not, then, liberalisation because of a fundamental belief in the naturalness of homosexuality and therefore in the necessity of equalisation, far from it, but liberalisation on the basis of the unevenness of the law code. Nor was Abse overly tolerant of the other aspects of the LGBT community (as we now recognise it). Indeed, five years after the law changed in 1967, the journalist Jan Morris underwent gender reassignment surgery and appeared on television opposite Leo Abse, Robin Day and others, who questioned Morris’s transition in stark and uncompromising terms. Those who caught Michael Palin’s affectionate portrait of Jan Morris a few months ago, when she turned 90, will have seen a clip of this programme in which Abse, in effect, declared ‘just because you’ve had it chopped off, that doesn’t make you a woman’.

Abse went on to review Morris’s memoir, Conundrum, for the Spectator in April 1974. From the perspective of the Abse appreciated as a law reformer, it makes for somewhat uncomfortable reading. The book, he writes,

is essentially proselytising and, as such, in my judgement, immoral. It is one matter to insist that, with contemporary psychiatry helpless in the face of adult transsexualism, the law must afford as much protection as possible. […] But it is another matter to label a pathological condition, albeit one that may have beneficial creative side effects, as magical or miraculous as Morris does.

Elsewhere in the review, Abse asserts his belief in bisexuality as the ‘default’ setting of humanity, but refuses to accept what he perceives as the assertion of ‘superiority’ of ’certain homosexuals’ and ‘transsexuals’ over ‘mere heterosexuals’. In other words, a discomfort at the growing assertiveness of the liberation movements of the early 1970s – the Gay Liberation Front being the prime example.

But who was Leo Abse? And how was it that someone with such views on sexuality and gender came to be so closely identified with one of the key liberalisations of English law in the 1960s?

Born into a Jewish family in Cardiff in 1917, Leo Abse grew up in the Welsh capital alongside his brothers Wilfred (a psychoanalyst) and Dannie (a prominent poet and writer). His politics were radical from a young age. He joined Labour at age 17 in 1934, was chair of the Young Socialist branch in the city, and fought his first council election in 1938, when he was 21. In the mid-1930s, together with his friend Sydney Hamm, who was then studying at Cardiff Technical College, Abse formed the Cardiff United Youth Movement, a left-wing youth organisation ostensibly linked to the Labour Party but which provided for considerable crossover with the Communist Party in the city. In those days the Labour Party headquarters and the Communist Party’s South Wales District Committee offices were a few doors apart on Charles Street and could provide a readymade, textbook example of left entryism between the wars. But that’s another story!

The CUYM was agitated particularly by the Spanish Civil War and its members would protest, fundraise, and take active part in the pro-Republican activities in Cardiff. Dannie Abse, writing in his famous memoir Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve, recalled how he would go to meetings

listening to my brother Leo – who would one day become an MP – gesticulating on a soap box … and painting with words the bloody pictures of the war in Spain.

Leo Abse and Syd Hamm moved in circles that included men such as Gilbert Taylor, Alec Cummings, Len Jeffries, Lewis Jones, Idris Cox, Dora Cox, and Morien Morgan, all of whom eventually volunteered to fight in Spain, as did Syd Hamm. Taylor ran the Communist Party’s bookshop in the Castle Arcade, Cardiff, which was the main rallying point for would-be International Brigaders from the South Wales area. Here, having said nothing and left in the middle of the night, as Hywel Francis has described, they would be provided with train tickets, a little money, and instructions as to what to do when they got to London. These were idealists, yes, but equally politically committed young men who fought for a cause they truly believed in.

For although Cardiff was home to an active labour movement, Labour Party and Communist Party, it was also one of the South Walian stomping grounds of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. The steward of the Empire Club was a local representative of the BUF and several of the shopkeepers were active BUF members. The city also had its own branch of the Italian Fascisti, with money coming into that branch directly from Italy via the Italian consulate. Fascism may have been fought ‘over there’ in Spain, but it was also a feature of the streets that Hamm, Cummings, Taylor, and Jeffries, left behind. And they were the streets on which Leo Abse campaigned and faced his own survival amidst the sacrifices of his friends. Dannie Abse once more:

We sat there in the bare October Hall in the days of blackshirts, Potato Jones, unemployment and Tommy Farr. Mrs Mary Ford walked in just as the speaker was thumping the table, making the water shake in the glass as he shouted, ‘THERE CAN BE NO VICTORY WITHOUT SACRIFICE’…all the audience eyed her pinched, translucent face, her frail shoulders draped in black. […] ‘If you feel so strongly about Spain’ I said (to Leo), ‘why don’t you go there?’ Leo gazed down at me from his 21-year old eyes, as if he had been struck a blow.

In the event, Leo Abse did go to Spain, clandestinely, as the Spanish Civil War was coming to an end in 1939.

After the Second World War, by then an emerging solicitor in Cardiff, Leo Abse became ever more active with the City of Cardiff Labour Party. He was its chairman between 1951 and 1953. In 1953, standing in the Ely ward, he was elected to Cardiff City Council for the first time and held his seat until his election as MP for Pontypool at a by-election in 1958. He would serve as MP for the town, and its successor, Torfaen, until 1987.

Having gained a reputation as a liberaliser in the 1960s, in the 1970s Abse became a thorn in the side of the nationalist movement in Wales. As the leading member of the ‘gang of six’, a group of Welsh MPs, including Neil Kinnock, most actively opposed to Welsh devolution, he sought to spurn any and all attempts at introducing a measure of self-government to Wales. He was hostile to the Welsh Language Act of 1968 and any attempts to require the Welsh language for government and local government appointments. He firmly believed that Plaid Cymru were, once, to borrow from Richard Wyn Jones’s title, ‘the Fascist Party of Wales’. No need for a question mark as far as Abse was concerned!

If Abse was profoundly anti-devolution, he was equally pro-European believing in the European project as the most fundamental bulwark against nationalism of any kind. A life-long commitment to anti-nationalism and anti-fascism encouraged this embrace of European integration. In some respects, the position that Abse took, which P.J. Madgwick and Denis Balsom label ‘British European’, is increasingly fragile in today’s Wales. There is not room in today’s blog to ponder this at any great length, but to be pro-European but anti-devolution is a rarer position than it was in the 1970s and 1980s. The consequences of that, as we saw last June, and in the May before that, are profound.

And so let me return to my original question: who was Leo Abse and why was it he who sought to liberalise the law? Abse had a life-long commitment, it seems to me, to ironing out the inconsistencies evident in the law and to making British social democracy better for everyone. He sought a better code of law, free of any moralising judgements. He was, too, a firm anti-nationalist rejecting Welsh nationalism and fascism in the same political sweep. And he was, very clearly, a complex individual whose historic fame as one of the great reformers of the 1960s deserves far more scrutiny. We can certainly share the words of James Callaghan, in his 2008 obituary, that Abse did ‘much more good in terms of human happiness than ninety percent of the work done in Parliament on what are called “political issues”’. But we should also be far more aware of what Abse said, for that makes the changes that, for fifty years, Abse has been rightly associated with far more remarkable.