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Leo Abse: Labour MP whose parliamentary Bills helped liberalise British society

Leo Abse's parliamentary causes, not one of which was ephemeral and most of which lasted for the three decades of his constant activity in and out of Parliament as Labour MP first for Pontypool and then for Torfaen, had one thing in common – Abse knew one heck of a lot about his subjects.

The penal system, adoption law, the abolition of capital punishment, the divorce laws, homosexuality, family planning, legitimacy of children, widows' damages, industrial injuries, congenital disability, relief from forfeiture, in-vitro fertilisation and many other delicate matters were brought on to the floor of the House of Commons, with passion and knowledge: in doing so, Abse enhanced the British Parliament in which he believed, to the extent of defying his party to fight "Vote No" on Welsh Devolution in 1979.

Not only did Abse talk at enormous length on these subjects but he actually did something about them: he introduced a plethora of Bills amounting to some of the most radical legislative changes in the post-war period. It was his Sexual Offences Bill, receiving royal assent in July 1967 a full decade after the Wolfenden Report, that finally decriminalised homosexual activity between consenting adults. He was also a dominant figure behind the Divorce Reform Act 1969, which liberalised the laws on divorce. In his 2000 book Fellatio, Masochism, Politics and Love, Abse remarked that, until the intervention of the Labour government under which he served, "our laws relating to divorce, suicide, illegitimacy, adoption and homosexuality were unbecoming to any society claiming to be civilised."

In 1969, the Inter-Parliamentary Union sent a delegation of six MPs to Japan, under the leadership of John Cronin, MP for Loughborough, which included Leo Abse and myself. On our return to Tokyo, after we had been at Kyoto, Nara and Osaka, we were scheduled for a 15-minute courtesy call on the then Japanese Prime Minister, Eisaku Sato, really with no more than the objective of saying a polite thank-you for the welcome we had received.

When we trooped into the Prime Minister's office, and before we had had time to sit down or for Cronin to get a word in edgeways, Abse said "Prime Minister, we must use our time to discuss abortion with you!" Sato was not in the least taken aback: "I'm most concerned about what we in Japan should do about abortion, and whether we ought to have updated abortion laws." Abse proceeded to hold forth: our allotted slot in the prime ministerial timetable went by and Sato lifted his phone and said something in Japanese. Cronin made to go out of politeness. "No, stay here," said Sato, "I was just postponing my next meeting." And then, half an hour later, officials from the Health ministry arrived, hurriedly summoned by Sato to listen to Abse.

Fifteen minutes eventually extended to two hours and 50 minutes. Abse was phenomenal in his grasp of the subject, and his passion for justice in any abortion law. This extraordinary little man, smaller in stature than most of his Japanese hosts, transfixed them. Years later, I was told by Michita Sakkata, the Japanese Education minister, that Abse's encounter had had a profound influence on the official Japanese approach to abortion.

No MP ever claimed a more ancient lineage than Leo Abse. His father – a Cardiff merchant – and all his family, unlike the Ashkenazi Jews who constitute the vast majority of Jews in Britain, were Arabic in appearance. He told me that his strange name was not shared by any other family of Jews in Western Europe or the US, and was Phoenician in origin. He suspected that his ancestors were in Tyre long before the Jewish tribes arrived in Canaan.

There is the story – not apocryphal but true – that soon after Abse arrived in the House of Commons, he found himself walking across Westminster Hall with Aneurin Bevan, who proceeded to offer fatherly advice that, on coming to Parliament, Abse should do as he himself had done, and cultivate irreverence. Jenny Lee told me that Nye had come back to her that night, nonplussed, and told her that his advice to Leo Abse had provoked the retort that "however the English ruling classes might appear to a Celt, to a Phoenician they are mere parvenus!"

After Howard Gardens High School, in Cardiff, and the London School of Economics, where he fell under the spell of Harold Laski, Abse volunteered for the RAF in 1941. No other aircraftman was to be the subject of a Parliamentary debate devoted to his situation.

In 1944, while serving in the Middle East, Abse was detained for left-wing political activities. On 5 July, D.N. Pritt KC, the socialist MP for Hammersmith North raised the matter in the House. He asked the Secretary of State for Air Sir Archibald Sinclair why Aircraftman Leo Abse was posted to Britain immediately after he had taken office in the Forces Parliament at Cairo, at a time when he still had 18 months unexpired of the normal period of service in the Middle East; why he was kept under open arrest for 14 days awaiting his departure from Egypt, without any charge, pretext or explanation; and why the protest of the educational officer of his unit that his posting was detrimental to the educational work of his unit, which Abse was assisting, was ignored.

Sinclair replied:

An Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief has full discretion to post an airman at any time if he considers such a posting to be in the interest of the Service, and Aircraftman Abse was posted by the AOC-in-C, Middle East in the exercise of this discretion. I am informed that he was not at any time placed under open arrest. It is understood that this airman had for three weeks prior to his posting been taking an educational class at his unit, and his posting was no doubt a matter of regret to the education officer whom he was assisting. It was not, however, considered that this provided a good reason for varying the decision.

Pritt pressed the issue, and Sinclair responded:

When the Army authorities decided to close the Forces Parliament . . . a public protest was organised against the decision, in which this airman figured prominently.

The Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief considered whether disciplinary action was called for. He decided, rightly, in my opinion, to take the view that this was really a case of misplaced zeal and not to take disciplinary action. He did however think it was in the interests of the Service that this man should be posted away from the Command.

Mischievously, the young Quintin Hogg, later to be Lord Hailsham, and twice Lord Chancellor, enquired whether it was not "unique" to have the case of a man serving in the Middle East complaining that he had been sent back to Britain. "It is, in my experience," opined Sinclair. But then, for the next six decades and more, everything about Leo Abse was to be unique.

On 4 October that year, Pritt initiated an Adjournment Debate, raising "a matter of some importance concerning the posting of an aircraftman called Abse to the United Kingdom from Cairo, and his concern with the Cairo Forces Parliament," which culminated in the Under-Secretary of State for Air losing his temper over the issue of whether Abse's conduct was "misplaced zeal" or more.

On his return, Abse became a solicitor, with a burgeoning reputation as the most effective miners' lawyer – and in 1986, he was the first solicitor to be granted audience to the High Court. He was chairman of the Cardiff Labour Party, 1951-53, and member of the City Council 1953-58, where in both capacities he made the Cardiff MPs James Callaghan and George Thomas uncomfortable from time to time. When D.T. West was raised to the peerage, Abse was chosen as candidate in Pontypool, and romped home with 20,000 votes, to the Conservative 6,273, and the Liberal 2,927. Huge majorities ensued until he retired in 1987.

In 1955, he married the artist Marjorie Davies; when they came to our home in Scotland for a meal, my wife and I felt that no man could have treated his wife with more charm and love than Leo. He was bereft when she died in 1996. Subsequently – and he made clear that Marjorie would have approved – he married the much younger Ania Czepulkowska, to whom Abse's friends were hugely grateful for looking after him in his deaf, great old age.

Abse made enemies – exclusively the powerful, particularly prime ministers. Even I thought that his Margaret, daughter of Beatrice: a psychobiography of Margaret Thatcher (1989), and The Man Behind the Smile: Tony Blair and the politics of perversion (1996) were somewhat over the top. Writing in Tribune on 18 June 1999, Abse said:

Once upon a time, but in my time, there was an "Old" Labour major, a man with a good First World War record and a man not given to historic gestures, who flew to America and dramatically succeeded in stopping the President yielding to frustrated generals then urging the atom bomb be dropped upon the North Koreans.

Times change, now we have a "New" Labour premier, well-adorned with designer clothes – including those suitable for refugee camp visits – but, unlike my generation, one who has never worn uniform, flying to Washington. His quest differed from that of Clement Attlee, his quest was to urge the President to overcome the guilt of his draft-dodging past and become further involved in the Balkans imbroglio and roll ground troops into Kosovo. The Italian premier demurred, the German Chancellor described the ploy as madness, but our brave premier dismissed their timorousness.

My last conversation with Abse revealed his deep rage and incandescence with anger over Iraq.

Abse's approach was to study the relationship between politics and personality. He dared to place under scrutiny the interior lives of practising politicians. He insisted this had nothing to do with cheap and scurrilous probing, but related to the belief that when political decision-making can have such fateful consequences as peace or war for a nation, the elected politician cannot claim the same right of privacy as that afforded to the electors.

Policies, for Abse, cannot be disengaged from the policy-makers. The drives and psychological needs of the politicians invade and distort the panaceas they offer to the electorates. If more objective assessments are to be made of policies, assessments must be made of the men and women who expound them. Abse himself deserved to be remembered as one of the most significant social reformers of 20th-century Britain.

Tam Dalyell

Leo Abse, politician and solicitor: born Cardiff 22 April 1917; chairman, Cardiff City Labour Party 1951-53; member, Cardiff City Council 1953-58; MP (Labour) for Pontypool 1958-83, for Torfaen 1983-87; member of council, Institute for Study and Treatment of Delinquency 1964-94; chairman, Welsh Parliamentary Labour Party 1976-87; president, National Council for the Divorced and Separated 1974-92; married 1955 Marjorie Davies (died 1996; one son, one daughter), 2000 Ania Czepulkowska; died London 19 August 2008.