The Father of the Permissive Society

Geoffrey Best looks at the life of A.P. Herbert, writer, wit and MP, who played a major role in the liberalisation of British life with his reform of the draconian divorce laws.

On its more respectable side, the 'Permissive Society' meant liberation from the oppression of laws that stood between individuals and their self-determination and fulfilment. The legislation that proposed to regulate it is rightly connected with the name of Roy (later, Lord) Jenkins. While still only a private member, he set the permissive ball rolling with his bill that became the Obscene Publications Act of 1959, the liberalising effect of which was confirmed in the 'Lady Chatterley* trial in the following year. During the mid1960s, Home Secretary Jenkins presided over a remarkable batch of statutes that abolished the death penalty and theatrical censorship, decriminalised abortion and homosexuality and extended the grounds for divorce and the equitable division of property. So remarkable a display of liberating fireworks had the effect of obscuring the existence of his precursor, the Independent MP who promoted the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1937 and who was active also in other lines of permissive reform that only bore fruit 30 years later.

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