Friday, August 22, 2008

Leo Abse Z''l

Leo Abse, Welsh lawyer and Labour MP best known as a campaigner for gay rights and for his sartorial elegence in grey Westminster, has died aged 90.

He achieved notoriety of taking up the then unfashionable cause of homosexual rights (is it fashionable now?), he added a little more aged 83 when he married Ania Czeputkowska, a Gdansk electrician and textile designer half a century his junior.

Less well known is his role in a splendid example of proletarian democracy, the 1944 Cairo Forces Parliament, as related here by Andy Newman and in Tam Dalyell's obituary. Arguably, the working class self-activity embodied by the Forces Parliament was the motor behind the great reforms of the Atlee government after the war. After the war, he became heavily involved in the Labour movement, in the Bevanite wing. Paul Flynn MP writes:
I first met him in 1948 when he stood unsuccessfully as a Labour council candidate for the Grangetown ward in Cardiff. He made an indelible impression. To a twelve year old, it was a shock to confront anti-Semitism from the local Tories. Leo Abse remained a hero for my brother and me ever since that unforgettable campaign.
According to wikipedia, Abse "clandestinely visited Spain during the closing months of the Spanish Civil War, in 1939." Also according to wikipedia, he fiercely attacked on those Labour MPs who took the Arab side in the Six Day War, although he sharply condemned what he called the "unjust war" in Lebanon in the 1980s, for which he received censure from the Board of Deputies. In general, partly beacause of his time in khakhi, his default position was against all wars.


Of his later period, Flynn writes:
He turned his fury against Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Waspishly his attack on Thatcher was as “Daughter of Beatrice’ because she failed to mention her mother in her Who’s Who biography. When Tony Blair named his son Leo, Abse said ‘He has stolen my party, now he has stolen my name... He worked with the enthusiasm, energy and chutzpah of an enfant terrible until his final days.

Abse had Jewish heritage. In a fantastic interview, he said
One grandmother was an Orthodox Jew, the other a secular feminist. Their influence on me was enormous and they gave me a very different sense of identity
But - unlike his brother, the wonderful poet Dannie Abse - he did not identify with this:
When people call me a Welsh Jew, I say: “Don’t be silly. Being born in the stable doesn’t make you a horse.”
Nonetheless, according to The Times obit (which also says he "was opinionated and eloquent in a characteristic Welsh-Jewish manner." Hmmm...), when his 1962 Matrimonial Causes and Reconciliation Bill provoked an unprecedented joint statement by the different churches in Britain, leading Abse to comment “It took a Jew to found the Christian Church, and it’s taking another to unite it.” He also desribed himself to Nye Bevan as a "Pheonician", according to Dalyell (who is known for his less than progressive views on Jews). His later books also frequently address Biblical themes.


Leo was the father of Toby Abse, one of the organisers of Lewisham '77, and an occassional socialist candidate in local elections in Brockley. Toby Abse is a historian by trade, and his work on the role of the Comintern in subverting the anti-fascist cause in Spain is important.

Leo's brother is Dannie Abse, a fantastic poet.

For more, see Jonathan Fryer, More Intelligent Life, Derek Wall. Added: Jim Denham.

1 comment:

ModernityBlog said...

Off topic:

despite pushing a link to David Duke web site, some UCU members are talking about a libel against HP

could you and other bloggers re-post the post from HP as a warning that libel laws should not be used against bloggers to protect the promotion of anti-Jewish racism

http://www.hurryupharry.org/2008/08/22/ucu-and-the-david-duke-fan/#comment-218600

http://modernityblog.wordpress.com/2008/08/23/mr-cushman-sue-me-too-part-2/