Jennie Lee: A Life 
by Patricia Hollis.
Oxford, 459 pp., £25, November 1997, 0 19 821580 0
Show More
Show More

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.

‘Nye’s quick temper, reinforced by Jennie’s sectarian instincts, meant that he’ – and not Gaitskell – ‘would be the one to storm out and to be swept in again.’ But Lee, Hollis argues, probably didn’t have much political influence over Bevan: just as he was not a good Bevanite – he was capricious, failed to consult the faithful and was uneasy with the idea of an oppositional group – he wasn’t bound by his wife’s opinions. Her speeches were always taken as representing what he really thought, however, and in 1950 a reporter asked her if Bevan helped her with them. ‘I’m not the soft underbelly of the axis,’ Lee replied. Her ability to control access to Bevan was also resented, as was her inevitable capacity to get the last word with him. His fondness for their farm in the Chilterns, away from Westminster, the implacable Gaitskell and the Bevanites, was also blamed on the evil Jennie, who wanted to isolate him there so she could whisper extreme, paranoid thoughts into his ear. Bevan, though, was probably more interested in his pigs.

When Bevan was dying, Lee could be said to have used his illness to take revenge on those who had let him down, especially the Bevanites who had criticised his speech against unilateral disarmament at the 1957 Party Conference. She had at the time disagreed with Bevan’s speech and might have been expected to have been dismayed, too, at her husband’s late conversion to the responsibilities of leadership. But she was tired of the constant dramas and of being harassed by a hostile press (at their farm reporters eavesdropped in the shrubbery and photographers put floodlights up on scaffolding in the lane; in London their house was always watched and visitors to Lee’s dying father were cast as Bevanite conspirators) and told Mervyn Jones, who worked for Tribune: ‘Nye is 60. He can’t go on resigning and walking out and isolating himself with his little band of faithful. He can’t go on like that, he can’t.’ CND, which Lee thought ‘a hysterical middle-class lobby’, now dominated the Left, and its view was the one put forward in Tribune, much to her annoyance. Of course, the middle class had always dominated the Bevanites, but this time the faithful weren’t on the same side as their leader. Rather than acting as a vehicle for Bevan’s views, Tribune, edited by Michael Foot, described itself as leading the campaign against the H-bomb. Lee believed that the Bevanites’ desertion was responsible for the cancer that killed Bevan in 1960: ‘until their attacks began, he never had so much as a stomach ache,’ she wrote (inaccurately) in My Life with Nye. She kept those she felt responsible away – Michael Foot, for example – and didn’t tell them or her husband what was wrong with him, although he clearly had some idea. She was drinking heavily and was so bad-tempered that when she fell down the stairs one of Bevan’s doctors muttered that it was a pity she hadn’t broken her neck. As Hollis says, most people thought that Lee had refused to tell Bevan the truth for her own benefit, not his, that she had been frightened and he had rescued her. Lee worried for the rest of her life about whether this was true.

She had not always been so devoted. Their marriage had been, on Lee’s side at least, largely to avoid scandal: ‘I reckoned marriage gave me protective colouring as I badly needed to be shielded from gossip if I was to continue in public life.’ Bevan was besotted with her, and she ‘liked him well enough and the chemistry was all right between us’. They got married at Holborn Register Office in October 1934 and Lee, who hadn’t bought any new clothes for the occasion, refused to change her name or to wear a wedding ring. She was then much the better known, having entered Parliament at the age of 24, the victor of a by-election in the mining seat of North Lanark shortly before the 1929 General Election, at which Bevan first won his seat. Bevan didn’t quite manage to make himself stand out from the mass of Welsh Labour MPs from mining areas. Lee, on the other hand, had what her friend and fellow MP Ellen Wilkinson described as ‘colossal self-assurance’ and was a dramatic speaker, whose maiden speech accused Churchill of ‘cant, corruption and incompetence’. She was also strikingly attractive, dark-haired and dark-eyed, looking, according to one observer, ‘like a rose with the dew still on her’. ‘It’s a long time since there was any dew on that rose,’ one Scottish MP is said to have responded. My grandmother, born two years before Lee to a family from the same town and with the same political involvement, never used to talk about Lee’s politics, but would sometimes mutter darkly that she was a ‘loose woman’. Bevan’s relatives had the same suspicions.

During the 1929 Parliament Lee was romantically interested not in Bevan but in Frank Wise, an ILP MP twenty years older than her, and married with four children. They became known as a couple at Westminster and were ‘passionately attached’, Beatrice Webb wrote in her diary, adding that ‘the scenes in the House of Commons when the rather unattractive wife appears and insists on taking possession of her husband and ignoring his friend, are a source of scandal in the Party.’ Lee was in love with Wise but she didn’t want to marry him – even had it been possible – and didn’t even promise to be faithful to him. ‘So often when I want you most you are simply not to be found,’ she wrote to him.

The difficulty with me is that men reach the point of wanting to sleep with me very rapidly and anything in the nature of ‘platonism’ is exhausted by the third evening at the latest ... Before I met you ... I despairingly gave in to the inevitable. Because of you I would now rather not, but you must not leave too many vacuums because I am at one with nature in abhorring them.

Lee was plainly not as powerless against male lust as she makes out, but she was clear that marriage was not what she wanted: ‘Even Frank I know I could and would renounce rather than pay the price of political frustration which I am sure would follow a divorce.’ It never came to this. Frank Wise died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage in 1933 and Bevan wasted no time in moving in.

Neither man had managed to persuade Lee to stay in the Labour Party when the ILP disaffiliated in 1932. Until 1918, when the Labour Party set up its own constituency parties, the only way to join it had been through an affiliated society such as the ILP or the Co-Op. The ILP’s retention of its independent party structure and its position on the left of the Party (and especially its heterodox economic policies) made conflict inevitable. During the 1929 Parliament, the ILP line was often opposed to that of the Government, especially on matters connected with Labour’s failure to reduce unemployment or to maintain levels of unemployment benefit. Only a small proportion of the ILP Parliamentary group consistently voted against the Government, but that group included Lee and the Clydesiders. Their refusal to accept the primacy of the PLP led to the Party’s withdrawal of endorsement from 18 of them, including Lee, in the 1931 General Election. The next year the ILP voted to disaffiliate, to strike out alone for revolutionary socialism. Lee said many years later that she had to stay with the ILP, that she was a ‘prisoner of geography’. This, as Hollis makes clear, is disingenuous: Lee stayed – unlike many of the Clydesiders whose ties to the ILP leader James Maxton were as strong as hers – because she didn’t want to compromise her socialist principles. She believed in fighting for socialism against the enemy, which was sometimes within: ‘I wanted to take part in a political contest where the alignments were as energisingly simple as the one-penny fairy tales ... that had delighted my childhood. I wanted to slay all the dragons and set poor people free. I wanted it to be All of Us versus The Others. But in 1932 the British working-class movement was in no mood to accommodate me.’ She stood for the ILP in North Lanark in 1935, but Labour put up an official candidate against her and he got enough votes to ensure her defeat.

Lee had a nervous breakdown: ‘I had come to a complete dead end. I was no use as a politician.’ By 1935 the ILP had lost two-thirds of its branches, had been infiltrated by the Far Left and its few remaining members were concentrated in London. Lee finally gave up on it in 1942, disagreeing chiefly with Maxton’s pacifism, and stood as an Independent in a by-election in Bristol later the same year. She lost surprisingly heavily, not helped this time by the ILP standing its own candidate and by her friend James Maxton campaigning against her. She rejoined Labour in 1944, agreeing with the Party’s National Agent that ‘whilst there may have been criticism of Labour’ in her journalism, ‘there was no wickedness in it.’

Bevan had told her in 1932 that ‘it is the Labour Party or nothing ... it is the party that we have taught millions of working people to look to and regard as their own.’ But Lee didn’t feel like that about it: the ILP was the party that she had come to regard as her own. As a member of the ILP she was one of a select band, part of a vanguard proselytising to the masses, Bevan’s ‘Salvation Army lassie’; she didn’t have much feeling for the Labour Movement at large, or believe that her principles should sometimes be laid aside in order to promote unity and compromise within it. Her grandfather had founded the ILP’s Fife section (as well as the local miners’ union) and her father chaired the West Fife branch. By 1920 Scotland, with 20,000 members, was the biggest section of the ILP. Lee herself was by this time on the verge of her career as an orator, having spent her childhood in the mining town of Cowdenbeath surrounded by people talking about politics, by activists and autodidacts like her grandfather, who, far from being ‘a down-trodden proletarian’ was the ‘great grandee of my youth’. In addition, all the ILP speakers who came to address the local branch stayed with the Lees and sat talking politics with her father. She even attended a socialist Sunday school, with socialist hymns, ten socialist precepts and, inevitably, the reading of the previous week’s minutes. This political and social world encompassed her childhood, and she was soon ‘completely captivated by the socialist movement and well on my way to becoming a youthful version of Colonel Blimp. I had my prejudices. I had no doubts.’ She worried, though her grandfather reassured her, that there would be nothing left to do when she grew up.

Despite poverty and the dastardly deeds of the mine-owners, history, it seemed, was on their side. Lee remembered seeing her father with a comrade ‘under the railway bridge across Cowdenbeath High Street, on a rainy Saturday afternoon. They were shaking hands as if they would never stop and the light of Heaven was in my father’s eyes. The first news of the Russian Revolution had reached them.’ But although the ILP and the Labour Party continued to grow in strength after the First World War, mining (her father and grandfather’s trade and the raison d’être of Cowdenbeath) was beginning to decline. Early in the century it had employed nearly a tenth of the working population: now there was competition from abroad and from other forms of energy. Lee’s family had been relatively prosperous in her youth, in part because there were only two children (two had died in infancy), but things soon became more difficult: miners’ wages declined, and there was no money coming in from Lee’s brother Tommy, who emigrated to Australia when he was 18. (This didn’t turn out well and, failing to get regular work, he became an alcoholic and later a heroin addict. His sister was terrified that the press would get hold of this story.)

Lee herself went to Edinburgh University in 1922 with the intention, in common with three-quarters of the women students in the Arts Faculty, of becoming a teacher. She doesn’t seem to have been very keen on this as a career but her parents were reconciled to her going to university mainly by the prospect of a steady job at the end of it; nor would she have got a grant if she hadn’t stated that she intended to become a teacher. She didn’t think much of university. All that was required, she said, was ‘dead, disconnected parroting’. She managed this efficiently and got a First, which did come in useful: at meetings she ‘saw the faces of elderly and middle-aged colliers looking towards me from the body of the hall, reconciled to my youth by the letters after my name’. After the General Strike, with money much tighter in the family because her father had been blacklisted, Lee started work as a teacher in a small mining village near her own. She hated it: ‘I did not believe that there was any good reason why either the children or myself should come to terms with life as we found it in that bleak mining village.’ Lee didn’t have to come to terms with it, soon becoming MP for another area of bleak mining villages, but her experiences hadn’t left her with much belief in the value of higher education (or feeling that any special cleverness was necessary to get a degree), or indeed in basic education unless accompanied by widespread social change. She certainly wasn’t an obvious choice of minister to set up Harold Wilson’s pet project, the Open University.

Lee had thought she was finished after Bevan’s death: ‘Bad sleeps, meaningless days. When to talk and what to say.’ She was drinking at least a bottle of gin a day. Wilson realised her need, as he said later, ‘for a life and an achievement of her own’. Lee suggested the job of Minister for the Arts – Wilson had (predictably) thought of putting her in the Department of Health. The appointment was to some degree a wreath for Nye, as was said at the time, but she made it much more than that, while blithely bypassing the Whitehall system and the ministers she nominally worked under. If Lee wanted something or was unhappy she went straight to Wilson. She didn’t trust senior civil servants (though she had an affair with one, whom Hollis does not identify) and was in the habit of circumventing them. At times ‘no mandarin would speak to us – so the office was run by an old lady and a child’, one of her private secretaries remembered. She relied instead on political will, her influence with Wilson and on Lord Goodman, a lawyer and old friend who was quickly co-opted. His presence made her job much easier and a number of people thought that he ran things while the Minister swanned about going to openings, but they should at least give her some credit for choosing him.

Arnold Goodman was soon installed as chairman of the Arts Council. Lee lived in the flat above his and every Sunday they would have supper together, go through the official papers and ‘Goodman would suggest suitable memos that she might care to write to him and suitable replies that she might care to receive from him.’ Before Goodman and Lee took over, the Arts Council had funded little outside London and only a few flagship companies within it: in 1961-62 the Council claimed that ‘even if its income were larger it would still prefer to consolidate those priorities than to dissipate its resources upon an extensive provision of the second-rate.’ Lee didn’t disappoint those who cared only for the funding of the Royal Opera House, but since she trebled the Arts Council’s grant in the six years she was minister, she was able to get a great deal of money spent outside London and to fund educational projects (and new institutions such as the National Film School), as well as pushing through schemes such as the National Theatre, which had been on hold for years. Some complained that she didn’t know enough about the arts, but she didn’t think it was up to her to make aesthetic judgments: ‘My function is merely a permissive one,’ she said. ‘I want simply to make living room for artists to work in.’

Her second responsibility, for Wilson’s University of the Air, was trickier. That it would come to exist was never in doubt because of Wilson’s investment in the idea, but its final, and surprisingly ambitious, form was almost entirely due to Lee and very closely resembles the institution she described in 1965 in her first speech on the subject in the Commons. Her refusal to downgrade the scheme and to offer school or foundation-level courses turned out to be largely responsible for the OU’s survival after Labour lost the 1970 General Election just as the first students were applying to it. Bevan had had to nationalise the hospitals in order to prevent the continuation of a two-tier health system, and Lee believed that having a so-called working-class university offering remedial classes would fall into the trap he had avoided. Walter Perry, the OU’s first Vice-Chancellor, says that had Lee ‘given way ... I think the concept would have disappeared. Its cost would have been no less, its status would have been much less, it would have had no glamour.’ There was criticism that the money could have been better spent on basic education (‘that was not the job I was asked to do,’ Lee would stone-wall) or that it would only help teachers (fewer than a quarter of teachers in England and Wales were graduates) and they were not sufficiently disadvantaged to count. Lee was very irritated by this criticism: ‘It was never intended to be a working-class university. It was planned as a university.’ The OU only just managed to survive the change of government: Mrs Thatcher, the Minister for Education, approved of it, because the OU promoted self-help, but the Chancellor Iain Macleod didn’t, and Hollis recounts a story that papers proposing its abolition were on his desk waiting to be signed the night he had his fatal heart attack.

Lee’S SEAT in Parliament didn’t survive the 1970 General Election, however. Her constituents in Cannock – another area of bleak mining villages, this time in Staffordshire, which she had represented since 1945 – didn’t see what her job had to do with politics or with them, and were fed up with her lack of interest in the constituency. She was made a peer in Wilson’s resignation honours list – appropriately, some of those in Cannock who were tired of her grande-dame mode might have thought – and turned up for her investiture wearing a bright pink crimplene trousersuit. She liked the courtly atmosphere of the Lords and attended fairly regularly until her health began to fail in the Eighties and she was increasingly confined to the basement of her house, unable to manage the stairs (the portly Arnold Goodman had to bump himself down on his bottom, one stair at a time, when he went to see her). Lee was dependent on her cousin Bettina Stafford, who had come down from Scotland on a visit after Bevan died and, as Lee’s parents had done years before, stayed to look after her. Lee effectively adopted the Staffords’ son Vincent, who had stopped her ‘indulging my mood of total despair and desolation’ after Bevan’s death. She lavished affection and money on him and tried hard to sabotage his marriage because it took him away from her. Bettina Stafford looked after Lee until she died in 1988, a few hours after snapping at her cousin, who was stroking her hand: ‘Do you think I’m a bloody cat?’

Lee was lucky that some member of her family was always there to provide the domestic skills she never managed to acquire and to indulge her lack of them (this started early: her father used to cycle to Edinburgh once a week to bring her food and clean clothes when she was at university). Bevan’s family thought it was yet another way in which she fell short. On one occasion Bevan’s sister Arianwen had made the dinner and done the dishes but refused when Lee told her to put them away. ‘If you don’t, I’ll drop them,’ Lee said. Lee’s friends write affectionately about her mother – partly because she had many of the gifts her daughter so signally lacked: one of them, the Labour MP Benn Levy, claims for her that ‘rarest form of greatness, a being without ego’. They write about Ma Lee in a tone not dissimilar to the one Lee uses when she writes about other women. In My Life with Nye she talks of politicians’ wives as a man would: each one is briefly described, said to be ‘lively’ or ‘beautiful’ or, in Michael Foot’s case, ‘gifted’, and that’s all. As a politician she didn’t have any interest in women’s issues, nor did she value traditionally feminine virtues, though she realised that it was hard for a woman to get away with possessing none of them. When Lee was 20 she had written in her diary that ‘it is high time that the idealisation of unselfishness ceased. There is no need for it.’ Much of her behaviour underlined this belief but, peculiarly, unselfishness is a virtue that in her life with Bevan Lee could be said to have possessed.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences