Leo Abse was a fantastic exemplar of what a determined and principled individual MP can achieve. Not only did he pilot a Private Member’s Bill through Parliament in 1967 to legalise sex between men, but he was an international campaigner for women’s abortion rights.
But the story of how Abse came to prominence was in the Cairo Forces parliament in 1944. This was originally envisaged as a “mock parliament” by the education department in the army to popularise an appreciation of the democratic values to inspire the troops in the fight against fascism. All army units had political education officers – many of whom were CP members, or supporters of the war-time Common Wealth party.
The very soul of the army was at stake. Egypt was a decisive battleground over war aims. Following the defeat of Rommel the left in the Eighth Army had a very serious fight on its hands. Greek troops had mutineed rather than participate in the invasion of Italy. They had been promised that they would be allowed to return to liberate Greece instead. The British government responded by disarming the Greeks, surrounding them by barbed wire and denying them food. The response of the left in the army was decisive, the Communist Party organised collections of food from British and Commonwealth troops, and drove convoys to the beleaguered Greeks, until a compromise agreement was reached.
But by 1944 it was clear that the war would be won, especially due to the heroic efforts and sacrifices of the USSR’s Red Army. In the army the left organised among the other ranks to discuss what sort of world they were fighting for.
The “mock parliament” in Cairo was transformed – units elected delegates who stood on party programmes, and the debate electrified the army. It was understood that for the first time since the Putney debates the Army was democratically discussing what they were fighting for. The Cairo parliament formed a joint Labour/Communist “government”, and passed a series of Acts. These were not just debating society games – the Peoples’ Army was speaking to say that these were their war aims, and they expected the Westminster parliament to follow suit.
The first bill presented was moved by Leo Abse for the nationalisation, without compensation, of the land and the banks. It was passed overwhelmingly.
The authorities panicked and dispersed the key organisers, Leo Abse was returned to London, that caused a parliamentary debate initiated by the great independent socialist MP, D N Pritt.
But the politicisation of the Army continued apace. Serving members of the Armed Forces had been elected to parliament in by-elections for the Common Wealth party, standing on a programme of full and immediate implementation of Beveridge and a second front. The 1945 khaki election saw a landslide Labour government elected, with the overwhelming majority of troops overseas voting Labour, or more to the left.
But Leo Abse’s involvement wasn’t over. Once the war finished, the saluting stopped. Mutinees rocked the RAF particularly in India and North Africa, demanding demobilisation. The Army saw the need to decapitate the People’s Army and sprung a mutiny trap on a carefully selected platoon of paratroopers in Malaysia.
Thirteen veterans who had fought the Japanese were charged with conspiracy, and mutiny. They had expected to be demobbed, but instead were kept on to fight against pro-independence guerrillas – a political cause they did not agree with. The army sent out a fresh faced 21 year old martinent of a sergeant who insisted on parade ground dress, saluting and drills – in the jungle, and in a war zone. The soldiers went on strike, and the army sprung the trap.
They were all sentenced to death, then commuted to life time imprisonment – to be served in Malaya.
The issue cut right across the major fault line in the British labour movement. The Atlanticist right backed the Army, determined to restore order in the armed forces to change them back from a peoples’ army – the days of the good soldiers – and back into a professionalised military machine for defending Empire and privilege.
The left swung behind the Malayan prisoners, and Leo Abse played a leading role in the campaign for their defence. They were returned to Britain, and later released. On the specific injustice the left won, but on the more general issue the mutiny trap had worked and the army was depoliticised.