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Fine and dandy; Famed for his sartorial daring and outrageous wit, it's easy to forget the late Leo Abse was also one of the most important champions of British social reform.

Byline: mark BRITTAIN

I MET Leo Abse once, very briefly, and have never shaken the hand of a politician - any politician - feeling more honoured to have done so. When I say "met", though, it was only by way of being introduced as one of a throng of people at some function or other. We didn't get to speak - something I always regretted since there was so much I wanted to ask.

Now he has died and the chance is gone forever. Fortunately his books still speak to one with the directness of his voice. And what wonderfully seditious, cheeky, disrespectful (outrageous would not be too strong a word) - but seriously intentioned and lethally targeted - books they are!

He was both the Petronius and Suetonius of his age to the British Establishment. But instead of directing his "elegant judgement" (as the Roman historian Tacitus said of Petronius) to the lives and reputations of the Emperor Nero et al, his unforgiving, probing, semi-satirical spotlight fell on those of, amongst others, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Small wonder he was never ennobled or rewarded (for being the most effective and hard working parliamentarian in living memory) with a seat in the Lords.

The 91-year-old former Labour MP for Torfaen (formerly Pontypool), whose brilliant light finally went out last Tuesday after a short illness, dissected the flawed psychologies of these latter-day, would-be rulers with an intelligence as keen as any scalpel.

The result was, in the first instance, in 1973, a book called Private Member: a psychoanalytically orientated study of contemporary politics, which set out to relate MPs' behaviour and attitudes to their childhood and sexual experiences. It made him few friends but provided everyone else with a chuckle and food for thought.

Then, after he retired from Parliament in 1987, came similar studies of people in power: Margaret, Daughter of Beatrice (1989); The Man Behind the Smile: Tony Blair and the Politics of Perversion (1996) and, in 2003, an updated edition called: Tony Blair, The Man who Lost his Smile.

The most scandalous and gratuitous, some people who haven't read it may feel, was his 2000 inquiry, purporting to be "an analysis of the repressed homosexual components of the relationship between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair".

It was provocatively titled Fellatio, Masochism, Politics and Love.

Would that he had lived long enough to turn his gaze on the next likely incumbent of 10, Downing Street, David (Dave) Cameron.

But the title is all that is lurid in the work which is otherwise a fascinating, artfully argued (and actually rather bleak) - if resolutely Freudian - look at why political leaders (including Bill Clinton) have betrayed their promise and electorates so often, culminating in a cri de coeur for political leaders to display the moral courage needed to extricate the world from the narrow national and personal self-interests leading it to ruin.

It had been, of course, Mr Abse, the Cardiff solicitor, who skilfully guided his Private Member's Bill through Parliament in 1967, legalising consensual adult homosexual acts. But his interest wasn't in the specific, but as a broad social reformer. He also helped liberalise divorce and make family planning widely available.

All of which makes him a hugely controversial figure in 20th century politics.

Prime minister James Callaghan, for example, once told the dapper and diminutive father-of-two (who was deeply in love with his wife Marjorie until her death 41 years later in 1996): "You do much more good in terms of human happiness than 90% of the work done in Parliament on political issues."

Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock and his wife Glenys said in a joint statement: "Leo was courageous, highly principled, very funny and totally unique. We are glad that he had such a long and fulfilling life in which he gained so much social progress by being an outstanding free-thinking socialist."

Our First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, said: "It is very rare for one MP to have been involved in so many major pieces of social legislation in relation to homosexuality, divorce and abortion, which have had a huge impact on the whole of British society. His passing is a huge loss to politics and public life in Wales."

Meanwhile the Daily Mail (via their columnist) called him "A very dangerous dandy" who was now "probably best remembered by many for his extravagant plumage", but added "his most potent legacy was to have been responsible for helping weaken the institutions of marriage and family life."

Oh well...


Abse analysed the psychological make up of (from top) Gordon Brown, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher
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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Aug 26, 2008
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