Taking the Blame

Jean McNicol

  • Jennie Lee: A Life by Patricia Hollis
    Oxford, 459 pp, £25.00, November 1997, ISBN 0 19 821580 0

In 1957 Jennie Lee wrote a long letter, which she did not send, to her husband Aneurin Bevan, asking him to give her ‘a little self-confidence’. The end of the letter makes it clear that Lee is really talking to herself:

I don’t know quite what to do for the best. Shut up and take the consequences, sit tight on the safety valve, ease things a little by small squeals that humiliate me more than they annoy you or pretend that I am being ‘unselfish’ by not asking for your co-operation, by deceiving you into believing that all is well, a sick woman needs only a few more vitamin pills and she will cease bothering about anything except weeds in her garden.

Quoting this letter in My Life with Nye, the memoir she published more than twenty years later, Lee says that it illustrates the ‘crushed, strangled feeling that had driven me close to madness’.

During the Second World War, Bevan had been responsible, almost single-handedly, for keeping oppositional politics going in the Commons, repeatedly challenging Churchill’s running of the country and the war. Churchill described him as a ‘squalid nuisance’; Lee realised that ‘he was doing what I wanted done infinitely better than I could have done it.’ She decided, therefore, that her primary political contribution, her service to socialism, would be to make life easier for him. This wasn’t always easy for her and when she was especially depressed she wrote letters she didn’t send or scribbled notes to herself, but she seems never to have let Bevan suspect how difficult she found it to act as his consort – nor did he doubt that her supporting role was appropriate. Although Jennie Lee led what Patricia Hollis describes in her well-judged if rather ill-organised biography as a ‘male’ life – ‘public, itinerant and unencumbered by family responsibilities’: they had no children – her sacrifices were typically female. (Lee’s privileging of her husband’s needs didn’t extend to domestic chores or cooking – her own mother looked after that.) Nor would her behaviour have been predicted from her early life. It’s strangely depressing to read about her self-abnegation, however impeccably socialist its cause, to move from descriptions of her glorious early self-confidence to the desperation in the 1957 letter and the carping of MPs – Bevanite and Gaitskellite – about her malign influence on her husband. Not that Lee doubted her decision: the important thing was the ultimate triumph of her class. She never had much sympathy with feminism – she thought it represented merely the ‘sectional’ interests of middle-class women and that working-class women were helped by helping their men – but she was conscious that her actions fell into a typical pattern. Towards the end of the 1945 Parliament she wrote in her diary:

It is easy for me to behave in a way that would smash both our lives. I see no way in which I can save both. If only one is to be saved it must be yours ... You cannot adjust to suit me. You simply could not do it. Not only your own ego would be outraged. All the external pressures of the contemporary social framework would be on your side. It is the woman’s part to give way, to make life smooth, to walk by your side.

As Patricia Hollis puts it, ‘the costs were all Jennie’s, the comfort all Nye’s.’

Lee had lost her seat in the 1931 Labour rout and didn’t get back into Parliament until 1945. By this time her husband’s opposition to Churchill had made him famous and, despite the refusal to parrot official party policy evident in that stance, he was given a seat in Cabinet. Lee didn’t get a job. She spoke badly in the Commons: ‘I had no contribution to make that Ni could not have made and with an added dimension. That is why I spoke less well than in earlier years, why I left sentences unfinished, became mildly incoherent.’ As Hollis says, she would have been seen as untrustworthy by the Right of the Party because of her long-standing ILP membership (she had stayed in the ILP when it split from the Labour Party), and her devotion to her husband’s cause was in part a renunciation of ‘what might well not be offered’.

Having given up her own ambitions in order to help Bevan become leader of the Left, perhaps even leader of the Labour Party, she then, the story goes, played a leading role in his failure to achieve this. During the Fifties, the period of Bevan’s battles with Gaitskell, Lee was held responsible for her husband’s frequent resignations. She was certainly a vanguardist, happy in opposition, and didn’t believe in compromise with people who were ‘nothing, nothing’ – as Bevan said of Gaitskell – but it was also convenient for everyone to blame her for Bevan’s walkouts. Not that Gaitskell was interested in compromise. As a ‘retro-Gaitskellite’ Hollis had expected to agree with Gaitskell’s position in the row over health charges which occasioned Bevan’s resignation from Cabinet in 1951, but found that the more research she did ‘the less justifiable Gaitskell’s position on charges appeared’. The charges were said to be necessary because of the money Gaitskell, egged on by the Americans, thought had to be spent on defence (going along with what the Americans wanted was never a good sign as far as Lee and Bevan were concerned). Bevan considered Gaitskell’s defence estimates economically and politically undesirable, as well as practically impossible, but failed to make his stand on rearmament, which many would have taken to be a more substantial issue than false teeth and glasses. Bevan mishandled the matter so badly that Gaitskell was able to emerge looking virtuous ‘even though the issue for him was his political authority, while to Nye, who believed he was defending the NHS, was attributed only wounded vanity’. Bevan didn’t resign immediately after the Budget as his wife argued he should, but dithered and finally went too long after the event and in a terrible temper, shouting, ‘I won’t have it. I won’t have it,’ at the PLP meeting. This kind of behaviour was of course very useful to Gaitskell, who was desperate to get rid of Bevan, and almost succeeded in getting him expelled from the Party in 1955.

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