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Leo Abse

Leo Abse

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Leopold Abse was a Welsh
Wales is a country that is part of the United Kingdom and the island of Great Britain, bordered by England to its east and the Atlantic Ocean and Irish Sea to its west. It has a population of three million, and a total area of 20,779 km²...

 lawyer, politician and gay rights campaigner. He was a Welsh Labour
Wales Labour Party
Welsh Labour is the part of the United Kingdom Labour Party that operates in Wales. Labour is the largest and most successful political party in modern Welsh politics, having won the largest share of the vote at every UK General Election since 1922, every Welsh Assembly election since 1999, and...

 Member of Parliament
Member of Parliament
A Member of Parliament is a representative of the voters to a :parliament. In many countries with bicameral parliaments, the term applies specifically to members of the lower house, as upper houses often have a different title, such as senate, and thus also have different titles for its members,...

 for nearly 30 years, and was noted for promoting private member's bill
Private Member's Bill
A member of parliament’s legislative motion, called a private member's bill or a member's bill in some parliaments, is a proposed law introduced by a member of a legislature. In most countries with a parliamentary system, most bills are proposed by the government, not by individual members of the...

s to decriminalise male homosexual relations
Homosexuality is romantic or sexual attraction or behavior between members of the same sex or gender. As a sexual orientation, homosexuality refers to "an enduring pattern of or disposition to experience sexual, affectional, or romantic attractions" primarily or exclusively to people of the same...

 and liberalise the divorce
Divorce is the final termination of a marital union, canceling the legal duties and responsibilities of marriage and dissolving the bonds of matrimony between the parties...

 laws. Following his retirement from Parliament he wrote a number of books about politics based on his interest in psychoanalysis
Psychoanalysis is a psychological theory developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalysis has expanded, been criticized and developed in different directions, mostly by some of Freud's former students, such as Alfred Adler and Carl Gustav...


Family and background

Leo Abse was one of the sons of Rudolf Abse, a Jewish solicitor and cinema owner who lived in Cardiff
Cardiff is the capital, largest city and most populous county of Wales and the 10th largest city in the United Kingdom. The city is Wales' chief commercial centre, the base for most national cultural and sporting institutions, the Welsh national media, and the seat of the National Assembly for...

. One of Abse's grandfathers was from Poland, and the his grandmother from Germany. Abse's younger brother Dannie Abse
Dannie Abse
Daniel Abse, better known as Dannie Abse , is a Welsh poet.-Early years:Abse was born in Cardiff, Wales to a Jewish family. He is the younger brother of politician and reformer Leo Abse and the eminent psychoanalyst, Wilfred Abse...

 is a well-known poet; their older brother Wilfred Abse
Wilfred Abse
David Wilfred Abse was a Welsh psychiatrist.Abse was born in Cardiff, a brother of the poet Dannie Abse and the politician Leo Abse . An eminent psychoanalyst, Abse spent the greater part of his career in Charlottesville, Virginia where he was a professor of psychiatry at the University of...

 (1915–2005) was an eminent psychoanalyst. Abse attended Howard Gardens High School in Cardiff and then the London School of Economics
London School of Economics
The London School of Economics and Political Science is a public research university specialised in the social sciences located in London, United Kingdom, and a constituent college of the federal University of London...

, where he studied law. Having joined the Labour Party
Labour Party (UK)
The Labour Party is a centre-left democratic socialist party in the United Kingdom. It surpassed the Liberal Party in general elections during the early 1920s, forming minority governments under Ramsay MacDonald in 1924 and 1929-1931. The party was in a wartime coalition from 1940 to 1945, after...

 in 1934, he clandestinely visited Spain
Spain , officially the Kingdom of Spain languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Spain's official name is as follows:;;;;;;), is a country and member state of the European Union located in southwestern Europe on the Iberian Peninsula...

 during the closing months of the Spanish Civil War
Spanish Civil War
The Spanish Civil WarAlso known as The Crusade among Nationalists, the Fourth Carlist War among Carlists, and The Rebellion or Uprising among Republicans. was a major conflict fought in Spain from 17 July 1936 to 1 April 1939...

, in 1939.

Abse married Marjorie Davies in 1955. They had two children; Tobias and Bathsheba. Marjorie died in 1996. His second marriage was to Ania Czepulkowska, in 2000, when Abse was 83 and Czepulkowska 33. Abse died on 19 August 2008. He left his £1.2m estate to Ania, leaving no financial provision for his children or grandchildren in his will.

Political involvement

During the Second World War Abse served in the Royal Air Force
Royal Air Force
The Royal Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Formed on 1 April 1918, it is the oldest independent air force in the world...

. He was in Cairo
Cairo , is the capital of Egypt and the largest city in the Arab world and Africa, and the 16th largest metropolitan area in the world. Nicknamed "The City of a Thousand Minarets" for its preponderance of Islamic architecture, Cairo has long been a centre of the region's political and cultural life...

 in 1944 when some of the British military personnel stationed there set up a "Forces Parliament" in which they debated the structure of society they wanted to see in the post-war world. Abse's idealistic left-wing views were fully in tune with the majority opinion among the lower ranks at its meetings, but the existence of the "Parliament" disturbed the senior officers. When Abse moved a motion supporting nationalization
Nationalisation, also spelled nationalization, is the process of taking an industry or assets into government ownership by a national government or state. Nationalization usually refers to private assets, but may also mean assets owned by lower levels of government, such as municipalities, being...

 of the Bank of England
Bank of England
The Bank of England is the central bank of the United Kingdom and the model on which most modern central banks have been based. Established in 1694, it is the second oldest central bank in the world...

 he was arrested and the Forces Parliament was forcibly dissolved.

After the end of the war Abse set up in practice as a solicitor in Cardiff. In 1951 he established his own law firm, Leo Abse & Cohen, which eventually grew to be the biggest in the city. He was also elected as Chairman of Cardiff Labour Party for two years from 1951, giving up the post when he was elected to Cardiff City Council. Abse fought the then-safe Conservative seat of Cardiff North
Cardiff North (UK Parliament constituency)
Cardiff North is aborough constituency in the city of Cardiff. It returns one Member of Parliament to the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, elected by the first past the post voting system....

 in the 1955 general election
United Kingdom general election, 1955
The 1955 United Kingdom general election was held on 26 May 1955, four years after the previous general election. It resulted in a substantially increased majority of 60 for the Conservative government under new leader and prime minister Sir Anthony Eden against Labour Party, now in their 20th year...

, but was defeated.

In Parliament

Daniel Granville West
Daniel Granville West
Daniel Granville West, Baron Granville-West, known as Granville West, was a British Labour politician....

, the Labour MP for Pontypool
Pontypool (UK Parliament constituency)
Pontypool was a county constituency in the town of Pontypool in Monmouthshire. It returned one Member of Parliament to the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, elected by the first past the post voting system....

 and, like Abse, a solicitor, was awarded one of the first life peerages in 1958. Unusually for a town in the South Wales valleys at that time, the National Union of Mineworkers was not in control of the nomination of West's successor as Labour candidate, since Pontypool was a centre of the railway industry. Abse won the candidacy and then won the seat at the by-election
A by-election is an election held to fill a political office that has become vacant between regularly scheduled elections....


In the House of Commons Abse swiftly acquired a reputation for independence of spirit. He made a point of dressing flamboyantly on Budget day, and liked to drop references from Freudian
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud , born Sigismund Schlomo Freud , was an Austrian neurologist who founded the discipline of psychoanalysis...

Psychotherapy is a general term referring to any form of therapeutic interaction or treatment contracted between a trained professional and a client or patient; family, couple or group...

 into his speeches. Although his abilities might have taken him to high office, Abse remained a backbench MP. This factor, together with the fact that he had a safe seat, freed him from the restrictions that prevented most other MPs from taking up controversial subjects.

In 1963 Abse was selected in third place in the ballot for Private Member's Bill
Private Member's Bill
A member of parliament’s legislative motion, called a private member's bill or a member's bill in some parliaments, is a proposed law introduced by a member of a legislature. In most countries with a parliamentary system, most bills are proposed by the government, not by individual members of the...

s and introduced the Matrimonial Causes Bill, which simplified and made easier the legal process of divorce
Divorce is the final termination of a marital union, canceling the legal duties and responsibilities of marriage and dissolving the bonds of matrimony between the parties...


In 1957 the Wolfenden Report
Wolfenden report
The Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution was published in Britain on 4 September 1957 after a succession of well-known men, including Lord Montagu, Michael Pitt-Rivers and Peter Wildeblood, were convicted of homosexual offences.-The committee:The...

 had recommended that the law be changed to legalise consenting male homosexual
Homosexuality is romantic or sexual attraction or behavior between members of the same sex or gender. As a sexual orientation, homosexuality refers to "an enduring pattern of or disposition to experience sexual, affectional, or romantic attractions" primarily or exclusively to people of the same...

 sex, but the government had taken no action. Abse began to promote a Bill to put Wolfenden's recommendations into law in February 1962. He kept pressing the issue and, after Humphry Berkeley
Humphry Berkeley
Humphry John Berkeley was a British politician noted for his many changes of parties and his efforts to effect homosexual law reform, and both oppose, and then seem to abet, grand apartheid....

Conservative Party (UK)
The Conservative Party, formally the Conservative and Unionist Party, is a centre-right political party in the United Kingdom that adheres to the philosophies of conservatism and British unionism. It is the largest political party in the UK, and is currently the largest single party in the House...

 MP for Lancaster
Lancaster (UK Parliament constituency)
Lancaster was a constituency of the House of Commons of the Parliament of England then of the Parliament of Great Britain from 1707 to 1800 and of the Parliament of the United Kingdom from 1801 to 1867, centred on the historic city of Lancaster in north-west England...

) lost his seat in the 1966 general election
United Kingdom general election, 1966
The 1966 United Kingdom general election on 31 March 1966 was called by sitting Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Wilson's decision to call an election turned on the fact that his government, elected a mere 17 months previously in 1964 had an unworkably small majority of only 4 MPs...

, Abse became the main sponsor for the legalisation. Although with the Labour landslide of 1966 there was a majority for the Bill, it was still vulnerable but Abse persuaded Roy Jenkins
Roy Jenkins
Roy Harris Jenkins, Baron Jenkins of Hillhead OM, PC was a British politician.The son of a Welsh coal miner who later became a union official and Labour MP, Roy Jenkins served with distinction in World War II. Elected to Parliament as a Labour member in 1948, he served in several major posts in...

 to give the measure government time, which eventually saw the Bill through onto the statute book.

Abse's views on homosexuality were strongly influenced by his knowledge of psychotherapy. He argued that an obsession with the question of punishment of homosexuals "has hitherto prompted us to avoid the real challenge of preventing little boys from growing up to be adult homosexuals. Surely, what we should be preoccupied with is the question of how we can, if it is possible, reduce the number of faulty males in the community". Abse put his arguments in this way partly to ensure that those MPs who were inclined to vote for the Bill did not feel they were endangering their masculinity but mostly because he had a view that "those who do not procreate are deprived or stunted" (the analysis of Antony Grey
Antony Grey
Antony Grey was a leading English lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights activist. He lived with his partner, Eric Thompson, for 50 years after first meeting in 1960...

, who was leading the lobbying efforts of the Homosexual Law Reform Society
Homosexual Law Reform Society
The Homosexual Law Reform Society was an organisation that campaigned in the United Kingdom for changes in the laws that criminalised homosexual relations between men.- History :...

 and worked closely with him).

During the Six Day War in 1967 Abse made a passionate attack on those Labour MPs who had supported the Arab cause. In 1968 he was appointed to a Home Office
Home Office
The Home Office is the United Kingdom government department responsible for immigration control, security, and order. As such it is responsible for the police, UK Border Agency, and the Security Service . It is also in charge of government policy on security-related issues such as drugs,...

 advisory committee on the penal system. He was elected Chairman of the group of Welsh Labour MPs in 1971.

In 1973 Abse requested that the government ban the rock singer Alice Cooper
Alice Cooper
Alice Cooper is an American rock singer, songwriter and musician whose career spans more than four decades...

 and his group from performing in England, claiming that Alice was "peddling the culture of the concentration camp". Abse claimed: "Pop is one thing, anthems of necrophilia
Necrophilia, also called thanatophilia or necrolagnia, is the sexual attraction to corpses,It is classified as a paraphilia by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. The word is artificially derived from the ancient Greek words: νεκρός and φιλία...

 are quite another".

Abse was chosen to be Chairman of a select committee on abortion
Abortion is defined as the termination of pregnancy by the removal or expulsion from the uterus of a fetus or embryo prior to viability. An abortion can occur spontaneously, in which case it is usually called a miscarriage, or it can be purposely induced...

 from 1975 to 1977. His report advocated restrictions on abortion, including a lowering of the time limit within which abortion was legal from 28 weeks. He fought in the House of Commons for the enactment of his committee's recommendations, and continued the fight in 1980 when the Conservative MP John Corrie
John Corrie
John Alexander Corrie is a Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party politician and chief of Clan Corrie. He describes himself in Who's Who as a "consultant on African affairs and financial adviser to developing countries"....

 proposed a Bill along similar lines: Abse refused to compromise on a limit of 24 weeks.

Abse was an opponent of devolution
Devolution is the statutory granting of powers from the central government of a sovereign state to government at a subnational level, such as a regional, local, or state level. Devolution can be mainly financial, e.g. giving areas a budget which was formerly administered by central government...

 when it was proposed in the late 1970s. He also proposed a separate referendum
A referendum is a direct vote in which an entire electorate is asked to either accept or reject a particular proposal. This may result in the adoption of a new constitution, a constitutional amendment, a law, the recall of an elected official or simply a specific government policy. It is a form of...

 on whether the Shetland Islands
Shetland Islands
Shetland is a subarctic archipelago of Scotland that lies north and east of mainland Great Britain. The islands lie some to the northeast of Orkney and southeast of the Faroe Islands and form part of the division between the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the North Sea to the east. The total...

 ought to be part of a devolved Scotland
Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. Occupying the northern third of the island of Great Britain, it shares a border with England to the south and is bounded by the North Sea to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, and the North Channel and Irish Sea to the...

. Abse was briefly Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee when it was first set up, but resigned in November 1981. One of the reasons why he opposed devolution was that he thought some in Wales, whom he called "fanatics", wanted to use it to promote the use of the Welsh language
Welsh language
Welsh is a member of the Brythonic branch of the Celtic languages spoken natively in Wales, by some along the Welsh border in England, and in Y Wladfa...

. He opposed in particular proposals for criminal juries comprising only Welsh speakers, and described Welsh-language television as an "expensive farce" and a "gravy train".

Abse added to his reputation for taking maverick stances by strongly urging that British forces be withdrawn from Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland is one of the four countries of the United Kingdom. Situated in the north-east of the island of Ireland, it shares a border with the Republic of Ireland to the south and west...

. He opposed nuclear power
Nuclear power
Nuclear power is the use of sustained nuclear fission to generate heat and electricity. Nuclear power plants provide about 6% of the world's energy and 13–14% of the world's electricity, with the U.S., France, and Japan together accounting for about 50% of nuclear generated electricity...

 and nuclear weapons, and criticised Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher, was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990...

 for insisting that Argentina
Argentina , officially the Argentine Republic , is the second largest country in South America by land area, after Brazil. It is constituted as a federation of 23 provinces and an autonomous city, Buenos Aires...

 unconditionally surrender over the Falkland Islands
Falkland Islands
The Falkland Islands are an archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean, located about from the coast of mainland South America. The archipelago consists of East Falkland, West Falkland and 776 lesser islands. The capital, Stanley, is on East Falkland...

. However, he supported British membership of the European Communities
European Union
The European Union is an economic and political union of 27 independent member states which are located primarily in Europe. The EU traces its origins from the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community , formed by six countries in 1958...

. His support for liberal divorce laws led him to propose a new 'child-centred' divorce reform in the early 1980s; the Bill was piloted by Martin Stevens, Conservative MP for Fulham.

Later political and literary career

Abse was elected for the renamed seat of Torfaen
Torfaen (UK Parliament constituency)
Torfaen is a county constituency represented in the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. It returns one Member of Parliament , elected by the first past the post system.-Boundaries:...

 in 1983, but retired from Parliament in 1987. The first of the books he then wrote, Margaret, Daughter of Beatrice (1989), is a "psycho-biography" of Margaret Thatcher, taking its title from the observation that while Mrs Thatcher frequently referred to her father, she claimed not to have had anything to say to her mother from the age of 15.

In Wotan, My Enemy (1994) Abse took a psychoanalytic approach to explaining the origin of British hostility to Germany
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...

 and the idea of the European Union. In The Man behind the Smile: Tony Blair and the Politics of Perversion (1996) Abse highlighted some of the aspects of Tony Blair
Tony Blair
Anthony Charles Lynton Blair is a former British Labour Party politician who served as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 2 May 1997 to 27 June 2007. He was the Member of Parliament for Sedgefield from 1983 to 2007 and Leader of the Labour Party from 1994 to 2007...

's that were later to be cited by Blair's opponents on the left. A revised edition, Tony Blair: The Man who Lost His Smile (2003), was published in the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

). In this edition Abse took the opportunity to claim that he had paid off a blackmail
In common usage, blackmail is a crime involving threats to reveal substantially true or false information about a person to the public, a family member, or associates unless a demand is met. It may be defined as coercion involving threats of physical harm, threat of criminal prosecution, or threats...

er who had been targeting a fellow Welsh MP George Thomas
George Thomas, 1st Viscount Tonypandy
Thomas George Thomas, 1st Viscount Tonypandy PC was a British Labour Party politician and Speaker of the House of Commons. Born in Port Talbot, Wales, he initially worked as a teacher in both London and Cardiff...

 (Speaker of the House of Commons from 1976 to 1983), on the basis of Thomas's (closeted) homosexuality.

Finally, in Fellatio
Fellatio is an act of oral stimulation of a male's penis by a sexual partner. It involves the stimulation of the penis by the use of the mouth, tongue, or throat. The person who performs fellatio can be referred to as the giving partner, and the other person is the receiving partner...

, Masochism, Politics and Love
(1997) Abse drew attention to the fact that fellatio had been unspoken of a generation before but had since come to be seen as an essential part of casual sexual relationships. He analysed the tendency for men to engage in risky behaviour by placing their trust in women whom they barely know and linked it to political developments. The book was published in the United States in 2000 shortly after the scandal of Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton
William Jefferson "Bill" Clinton is an American politician who served as the 42nd President of the United States from 1993 to 2001. Inaugurated at age 46, he was the third-youngest president. He took office at the end of the Cold War, and was the first president of the baby boomer generation...

's relationship with Monica Lewinsky
Monica Lewinsky
Monica Samille Lewinsky is an American woman with whom United States President Bill Clinton admitted to having had an "improper relationship" while she worked at the White House in 1995 and 1996...

 had been revealed.


A bust of Abse was unveiled at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff on 22 October 2009. The sculpture was funded by the firm of solicitors he founded, Leo Abse and Cohen, and was made by Abse's second cousin, Luke Shepherd.


  • Private Member (Jonathan Cape, London, 1973)
  • Margaret, Daughter of Beatrice (Jonathan Cape, London, 1989)
  • Wotan, My Enemy (Robson Books, London, 1994)
  • The Man behind the Smile (Robson Books, London, 1996)
  • Fellatio, Masochism, Politics and Love (Robson Books, London, 1997)
  • Tony Blair: The Man who lost his Smile (Robson Books, London, 2003)
  • The bi-sexuality of Daniel Defoe: a psychoanalytic survey of the man and his works (Karnac Books, London, 2006)

Further reading

  • 'Leo Abse' in 'Parliamentary Profiles A-D' by Andrew Roth
    Andrew Roth
    Andrew Roth was a biographer and journalist known for his compilation of Parliamentary Profiles, a directory of British Members of Parliament, which is available online in The Guardian...

     (Parliamentary Profiles Services Ltd, London, 1984)
  • 'Peers, Queers and Commons' by Stephen Jeffery-Poulter (Routledge, London, 1991)
  • 'Quest for Justice: Towards Homosexual Emancipation' by Antony Grey (Sinclair-Stevenson, London, 1992)

'The Troublemakers...' by Stephen Cretney in 'The Continuing Evolution of Family Law' ed. by N Lowe and G Douglas, Jordans, Bristol,2009.

'Family Law in the Twentieth Century: A History' (Oxford University Press, 2003 and -pbk- 2004)

External links