How a little-known Welsh politician helped gay rights in Britain
A LITTLE AFTER 10pm on Monday July 3rd 1967, just as most sensible Britons were turning in for the night, the member for Pontypool was warming up. Leo Abse (pronounced Ab-zee) had been working the tea rooms of the House of Commons all day, charming and cajoling his fellow MPs in his rococo tones—a little flattery here, a white lie there. Now he slipped into the chamber, turning heads as always in spite of his short frame. Settling in his usual perch on the Labour government’s benches, his mischievous eyes darted about the place, searching out both his “stout fellows” and his foes. If his bill were ever to get through, tonight was surely the night.
The House had already been sitting for 12 hours. It had found time to note the teacher shortage in Scotland, the need for better provision for heroin addicts and the lack of geriatric hospital beds in the Hull area. It had mused on the sorry state of the river whose waters sploshed against the Palace of Westminster. The lack of moorings and amenities on “Old Father Thames” was a disgrace. At last Big Ben, that parliamentary alarm clock, struck ten, and it was Abse’s turn.
His bill, printed on the green pages each MP clutched, was plain enough: that, in England and Wales, “a homosexual act in private shall not be an offence provided that the parties consent thereto and have attained the age of twenty-one years”. Beside him on those green-leather benches sat his staunch supporters, a new generation of youngish, whipsmart Labour MPs more familiar with cloisters than coal mines. There was Dick Taverne, a 38-year-old barrister, and Shirley Williams, a passionate liberal who had run the Fabian Society, a leftish think-tank. And Roy Jenkins, home secretary and fellow Welshman, who cherished the idea of Britain as a “civilised society”.
The benches opposite were sparser, but their occupants no less determined. There was Ray Mawby, a moralising drinker not yet unmasked as a communist spy, Harold Gurden, a dairyman before his election 12 years earlier, and Ian Percival, who promised—or threatened—“to speak through the night if necessary”. To them, gay sex remained “the abominable crime”; legalising it after 434 years would be yet more damning evidence that England was becoming not a civilised society but a permissive one. They intended to propose amendment after amendment, and to greet each in turn with another lengthy, digressive speech. All they had to do was keep talking.
To make any progress, the proposers had to call a “closure motion”—a proposal to curtail discussion and move to a vote—on each amendment. But Parliament’s rule book dictates that such motions can pass only if they are supported by at least 100 MPs. So Abse had to keep enough of his supporters in the chamber not just for the final vote but to see off each amendment in turn. As the night wore on, his enemy was not so much those on the opposite benches as sleep: “It only needed one or two people to go home…to say ‘To hell with this, I can’t stay until the dawn,’ and we were undone.”
It would hardly have been the first defeat. Craning over from the Commons gallery to get a better view of the chamber below were a band of men well used to having their hopes dashed. They were no strangers to Parliament. They had awaited eagerly its debate in 1958 on the Wolfenden Report, an official review that recommended nixing the ban on gay sex that had held since the Buggery Act of 1533. Nothing came of that. Harold Wilson, the Labour prime minister, told colleagues that loosening the law would lose their party 6m votes.
You can live your life lonely
Few men were successfully prosecuted for sex in private, but the threat ensured that blackmail flourished and the closet door remained firmly closed. Some formed loveless marriages; others sought medical help. As Abse worked on his bill, John Wells, a 27-year-old phonetician at University College London, began attending weekly psychotherapy sessions to deal with the “problem” of his homosexuality. The year before he had split up with his first boyfriend, who—under pressure from his family—had then married a woman.
Into this vacuum came the House of Lords, Parliament’s unelected second chamber. Stuffed with crusty aristocrats who had inherited their fathers’ titles (and voting rights), it was an unlikely crucible of social reform. Yet, virtually irremovable as they were, there was little to stop their lordships speaking their minds. The eighth Earl of Arran (“Boofy” to his chums) had persuaded his fellow peers to vote for reform in 1965. He never told them his likeliest motivation. His older brother, whom he succeeded to the earldom, took his own life at the age of 55. Years later, Abse met a man who claimed to have been the seventh earl’s lover. In public, Lord Arran’s rationale was more pragmatic, and characteristically Wodehousian. “It simply needed someone to grasp the nettle. And a damned prickly nettle it was, too.”
Most MPs still feared its sting. The Lords provided momentum, but support in the Commons was necessary for a bill to become law. No government would risk backing such a contentious measure, so it could reach the statute book only via a private member’s bill, a mechanism that allows MPs to put forward their own laws. Such bills rarely pass, since little time is allotted to them. By 1967, Abse and Humphry Berkley, a Tory parliamentarian, had already proposed some measure of liberalisation three times without success.
One more try
Still, this time might be different. After all, Abse had friends in high places. Jenkins was one of a new breed of Labour MP who wanted the party to marry bread-and-butter leftism with social liberalism. As one wag had it, Labour should be the party of “full enjoyment” as well as full employment. Each time Abse’s bill was frustrated, Jenkins persuaded the government to lend it some of its own time in the Commons, albeit sometimes at ungodly hours. Which is why the gas lamps outside the Palace of Westminster were burning, casting shadows along its Gothic façade, as, inside, the Speaker finally called the House to order that night.
Big Ben was about to sound the next hour by the time Abse got to his feet for the first time. His opponents had already made the running for three-quarters of an hour and he was anxious to get on. “If I am brief in speaking to this amendment,” he began, “I am sure that it will be appreciated that it is out of no discourtesy to the House but because we are dealing with a matter which has been well canvassed.”
Abse was not normally so ready to pass up a chance to expound. The limelight was, if anything, a little dark for his liking. He embraced the old Commons tradition of dressing up for Budget day. Out came the top hat and cane, a fresh bloom in his buttonhole. The rest of the year, he favoured a dark green jacket over a mustard waistcoat and maroon trousers. He would stick one thumb in his waistcoat pocket during his lengthy and ornate speeches, enveloping the House in his lyrical, somehow religious, embrace. The Welsh have a pretty word for such oratorical magnetism: hwyl. Abse had bags of the stuff.
His interests, too, were colourful, stretching far beyond Pontypool, the mining town in south Wales that he had represented since 1958. He was a successful criminal solicitor, relishing representing suspected murderers, and a keen amateur psychoanalyst, emulating his hero Sigmund Freud. He would go on to publish a slew of eccentric “psycho-biographies”, attributing John Maynard Keynes’s “bold economic theorising” to his affairs with men, and Margaret Thatcher’s steely resolve to the “deprivation she felt at [her mother’s] breast”. The title of one of his later books indicated the range of his interests: “Fellatio, Masochism, Politics and Love”.
Given the need to overcome opposition from sober-suited moralisers, Jenkins was understandably wary of Abse’s involvement: “He wasn’t exactly the person I would have chosen to be the sponsor of the bill.” Yet it proved a profitable partnership. Jenkins squared the cabinet and spoke publicly in favour of the bill, all the time claiming that the government remained neutral. Meanwhile, Abse put his self-avowed guile to work, enlisting his allies and circumventing his opponents.
He contrived an argument with himself over whether to exclude the merchant navy from the bill, whipping up the issue in the press. As he hoped, his opponents seized on this. So confident were they that it would take up the first few hours of the bill’s consideration by a parliamentary committee that they did not plan to turn up and table their own amendments until the next session. In the event, Abse swiftly agreed to that amendment—as he had always planned to do—and the committee stage was over within an hour. Before this final debate, he had spent the day circling the tea rooms and bars of the Commons, bestowing wide smiles, witticisms and promises of future support. “It’s not just house-to-house fighting,” he liked to say. “It’s room-to-room.”
Praying for time
The night wore on. Again and again, that great clock tolled. Still, the diehards spoke on, each digression pootling along until chancing upon another.
First came the member for Bromsgrove: “When we last discussed this unpleasant subject, I raised the history of two young people who were taken from this country to the south of France…”
MR SPEAKER: “Order. I hope that the honourable gentleman is not going to repeat the story. We have a long debate ahead of us.”
The member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, chipped in: “I am not clear on what my honourable friend is saying about this sentence. He referred to it as a sentence for five years…”
MR SPEAKER: “Order. When an honourable member is trying to get back into order, an intervention should not encourage him to go out of order again.”
Then the member for Southport, anxious lest his long and rambling speech be misinterpreted: “I hope that we shall have no more of the nonsense that we have had in the House and the press that if someone dares to have a different point of view—on detail, for I am keeping to the amendment—and dares deploy an argument about it, that is filibustering. I am sorry to see those, self-styled, of enlightened opinion being so intolerant of the opinions of others. That was, in fact, my last but one general observation…”
MR SPEAKER: “Order.”
How am I gonna get through?
One by one, Abse’s supporters were shuffling off to bed. Fatigue was winning. On the first motion to halt discussion and move to a vote on an amendment, at 11.37pm, Abse had 135 supporters, comfortably more than the threshold of 100. By the second, at 1.25am, he had only 116. It was, he said, “on a razor’s edge”.
And still the opposition went on talking. Every argument was advanced. Any possibility to run down the clock was seized. Since the bill would decriminalise gay sex only in private, what would happen, the member for Bromsgrove wanted to know, if two men were spotted through their hotel window?
The member for Birmingham, Selly Oak speculated on the motivations of the bill’s supporters. “According to the figures we have heard and seen published, there is quite a percentage of people who practise homosexual acts. It would be strange indeed, in a place of 600 members, if there were not some here…” (Lord Arran, whose other great cause was badgers, reached the same conclusion. Asked why his badger-cruelty bill failed, he replied: “Not many badgers in the House of Lords.”)
Big Ben was about to ring out again by the time the member for Bromsgrove turned his attention to the matter of sleeper trains:
“Two passengers who occupy adjoining sleepers after boarding a train at Euston are committing no breach of British Railways by-laws if they indulge in this practice, but as soon as the train crosses the border and goes into Scotland they are committing an offence. Is this the right way to leave a bill? Are British Railways sleeping-car staff to receive instructions to blow a whistle at the border?”
At length, seven and a half hours into the night, the bill’s opponents had exhausted all their arguments. Or perhaps they were just exhausted. In the end, there was no need for another closure motion. The member for St Albans made one last attempt to stall. Now that the amendments had been considered, he argued, the debate should be adjourned to another day. The Speaker refused, and a substantive vote was finally called, at 5.44am. Fourteen diehards had lasted all night, voting against the bill to the bitter end. Across the lobby, there were 99 “Ayes”. Abse had won, by attrition.
It had been a long road. For Jenkins, who would have little sleep before Independence Day drinks at the American Embassy and an afternoon at the Wimbledon tennis championships. (Full enjoyment, indeed.) For Lord Arran who, under such strain for so long, had been “permanently if slightly pickled” for more than a year. Once, when someone scrawled “Arran homo” on the walls of his club, he “hardly dared to hold my head high. Indeed I thought of resigning from my club until I woke up and said to myself ‘Why the bloody hell should I?’” And, of course, for Abse, who went on to champion more private members’ bills than any other parliamentarian of his generation. He wanted to be remembered as “the member for happiness”.
With many a winding turn
His bill was imperfect. Since it made a specific offence of sex in public toilets, prosecutions rose in the decade after the bill was passed. By modern standards, the arguments he and Lord Arran deployed were themselves prejudiced: homosexuality was a “condition” to be pitied and not to be “flaunted”. And gay sex remained illegal in Scotland until 1980 and in Northern Ireland until 1982. It is still outlawed in 68 countries. Still, that night those stout fellows—men and women—loosened the shackles a little. Blackmail grew rarer; the closet door was left ajar.
As Abse, shattered, triumphant, emerged into Westminster Palace Yard, the gas lamps were still burning. Collapsing into his second-hand Rolls-Royce, he drove home to his wife, Marjorie, “who was in bed, still awake, anxiously awaiting me and my news. She took me into her arms.” It was a year before Mr Wells, the phonetician, met another man, Gabriel. They moved in three weeks later. With Gabriel’s support, he stopped going to psychotherapy; he realised it was society, not him, that had a problem. Today, 52 years on, they are still together. In 2006, as soon as they were able to, they signed a civil partnership. That long night was at an end. At long last, daylight was coming. ■
This article appeared in the Christmas Specials section of the print edition under the headline "A queer old tale"
- US Dollar Fundamental Outlook Hinges on Treasury Yield Volatility
- Gold Weekly Forecast: Gold Prices Preparing for a Break Out?
- Introduction to Basic Trendline Analysis
- NEWS: Bitcoin gets a weekend bid again, climbs above $60,000 April 10, 2021 at 02:27PM
- New Zealand Dollar Forecast: The Fight Between RBNZ Policy Bets and Wall Street