James White: MP who sponsored the 1975 Abortion Amendment Bill

Tuesday 24 February 2009 01:00

James White was the MP for Glasgow Pollok from 1970-87; my friend and well-respected parliamentary colleague, he came to national prominence just once – as the sponsor of the 1975 Abortion Amendment Bill. He was unostentatious, ever considerate of others, with no political ambition but very caring about his constituents, among whom he lived in one of the problem areas of Glasgow. Throughout he was also the hands-on managing director of his car-collection transport company.

At the end of 1974, White came number two in the ballot among backbench members for the chance to promote Private Members’ legislation of their choice. At the time, abuses in David Steel’s 1967 Abortion Act were a political hot potato and White, somewhat reluctantly, was prevailed upon to tackle abortion-law reform. (He relied heavily for explanation of the clauses and sub-sections on Leo Abse, the MP for Pontypool who was a solicitor immersed in the intricacies of abortion-law reform.) White made it clear from the outset that, had he been a member of the Commons in 1967, he would have voted for David Steel’s original Abortion Bill saying that, until such time as a “new Jerusalem” came along, with no bad housing, no poverty and no alcoholic husbands, abortion should be available for women with problems.

That said, White also believed that it was the duty of the House of Commons to see exactly how the 1967 Act was working in practice eight years on. “Many people want abortion on demand,” he noted. “We hear the shrill voice of The Guardian demanding this, but many people do not want it. We have tried to steer a middle course between the two contending lobbies and to produce a consensus Bill. We can do a great deal to assuage public concern and perhaps end this persistent controversy. I wish to contain it, not to inflame it.”

White was principally concerned with the foetus, and how it was disposed of, whether for research or commercial purposes. He warned of “the growing number of foreign women who are lured into Britain in the knowledge that for cash a group of doctors will perform illegal abortions on request, totally ignoring the criteria of the 1967 Act. I must stress this foreign traffic, not because I am anti-German, anti-French, or anti-Italian, but because of one of the comments in the Lane Report: ‘It would undoubtedly be more difficult, if not impossible to ensure their implementation in respect of non-resident women’.”

The other overriding aim of White’s Bill was to end the situation in which it was possible for unborn children to be “slain” even though they might have reached a stage at which modern techniques might enable them to survive. White was greatly concerned about what happened in Scotland in January 1969, when authorities were on the point of incinerating a live baby, and recommended “that in all cases, an infant approaching a viable age must be subject to resuscitation, and secondly that legislation should be introduced prohibiting abortion when the foetus is approaching or has reached a state of viability.”

The Abortion Amendment Bill 1974 was referred to a Select Committee which made numerous recommendations that resulted in a statement being issued by Barbara Castle, then Secretary of State for Social Services. She said that safeguards on abortions in the private sector would be strengthened, and that abortions being carried out at later than 20 weeks should only take place in hospitals with resuscitation equipment.

James White was born in Glasgow in 1922 and attended Knightswood Secondary School. In 1939 he volunteered for the Sappers and was assigned to the Royal Engineers unit with the 2nd Armoured Brigade which was an important part of General Wavell’s 8th Army in the Egyptian Libyan desert. White served successively under Wavell, Auchinlech and Montgomery.

By a chance, which was to influence the rest of his life, he was assigned to work with Gurkha battalions. He formed close bonds of friendship with these excellent fighters, so it was natural that he should be chosen to go on the first Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation to Nepal in 1981. He would often recount his experiences at Pokhara, where he witnessed the potential Gurkha recruits being chosen on their physical ability to carry sacks of stones up a mountainside in terrain that would have challenged a mountain goat, let alone a human being. The cause of the Gurkhas had no more stalwart champion in Parliament in my time than James White. He also worked closely with the Jesuits Father Thomas Gafney SJ (later to be brutally murdered) and Father Jim Dressman of the St Xavier’s Social Service Centre, at Jhamsikhel, Lalitpur, about the best use of British aid to Nepal. When I visited the country, as Deputy Leader of the Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation, in January 1996, a number of leading Nepali politicians, including Sher Bahadur Deuba, then Prime Minister, asked about White, who had been such a friend to their country.

White’s other particular international interest was Bangladesh, where he had been with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in 1973. He made himself extremely well-informed about the welfare of constituents from the Indian sub-continent, 35,000 of whom were residing in the city of Glasgow by 1985.

White was determined to keep his job as managing director of his car-collection company all the time he was an MP. With justice, he contended that this kept him in touch with the needs of small business. He was one of very few members of the House of Commons who really knew about the bus industry. In November 1978, with the support of his union, the Transport & General Workers union, he argued that responsibility for industry should be on a United Kingdom-wide basis and not devolved to the proposed Scottish Assembly. White was intensely loyal both to the old Labour Party and the T & G.

Tam Dalyell

James White, businessman and politician: born Glasgow 10 April 1922; Royal Engineers 1939-1945; managing director, Glasgow Car Collection Limited 1959-87; MP (Labour) for Glasgow Pollok 1970-87; married 1948 Mary Dempsey (died 2002; one son, two daughters); died Glasgow 19 February 2009.

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