Farewell, Leo Abse, gay rights champion and flamboyant troublemaker
THE man who changed the world for the British gay community through his unstinting efforts to decriminalise homosexuality in the 1960s, died this week aged 91.
But Leo Abse, Labour MP for Pontypool from 1958 until his retirement at the age of 70 29 years later, was much more than just a gay rights champion. He was also the power behind a series of social reforms during the 1960s that included the end of criminal prosecutions for attempted suicide, the abolition of capital punishment, reforming divorce law, and the legalisation of abortion.
To bigots, ‘decency’ campaigners and anti-abortionists, he was the Devil Incarnate.
A dedicated secularist, Abse sent the following message of support to the National Secular Society on the occasion of its centenary in 1966:
When the irrationalities of racial and religious fanaticism still so manifestly abound, there is no less need now than 100 years ago for an organisation speaking up â€¦ for humanism against state prejudices.
Former Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan was surely right to say that Abse has done:
Much more good in terms of human happiness than 90 percent of the work done in Parliament on what is called â€˜political issues’.
In 2008 Britain’s leading legal historian, Professor Stephen Cretney QC, a former Law Commissioner and Senior Research Fellow of All Souls, in his book Looking Back – Looking Forward: 150 Years of Family Law, OUP (2008), lauded Abse as a legislator who was a creative iconoclast and wrote of his contribution in the following terms:
Leo Abse: the most effective Law Reformer in 20th century Britain? One man, Leo Abse, a Cardiff solicitor, and a Labour Member of Parliament for the Welsh Constituencies for nearly 30 years, is an outstanding example of such a person: in Family Law in the twentieth century, A History I describe him as a â€˜brilliantly skilled master of parliamentary procedures’ who â€˜probably had a greater influence on the development of law relating to family matters than any other MP in the twentieth century.’ That is wrong: the word â€˜probably’ should be deleted.
Abse – for the umteenth time in his life – raised eyebrows when he married Ania, a Polish woman 50 years his junior in 2000.
In a Telegraph interview in December 2006 entitled Growing Old Disgracefully, Abse, then nudging 90 and still furiously writing and researching books, declared:
How do I feel? I feel like a man of 90! Anyone of my age who says he feels 21 is in denial. My physical incapacities are a constant reminder of my age and only my wife saves me from them. You can continue to live and be productive providing you have love.