In the mythology of the Labour Party, Nye Bevan is often quoted as having exhorted those at risk of losing the faith: ‘I tell you, it is the Labour Party or nothing.’ But those words were not a general battle cry from Nye, at least not initially. Rather, they were an impassioned personal plea to his most uncompromising Labour Party colleague – and the woman who became the love of his life – Jennie Lee.
Born into an upper working-class Fife mining family with deep roots in the Independent Labour Party (ILP), Jennie was a natural dissenter. At one step removed from the Labour Party hierarchy for much of her career, she gained fame early as a vibrant figure on the far-left long before Nye had a national profile. The secret to her early success lay in her family background: the Labour Party in Fife was the ILP, and it had been founded locally by her grandfather.
Throughout Jennie’s childhood, it was chaired by her father. Hers was an entirely untypical upbringing; itinerant ILP lecturers would find a warm welcome at her parents’ cottage, where Jennie gained her training in the socialist faith. Unusually for a young girl of that time, she also developed a nascent belief in her own capabilities as a politician. Her oratory skills were exceptional. By the time she reached university, Jennie was already in demand as an ILP speaker across Scotland. With striking good looks, she created a media sensation when she was chosen to fight North Lanark for the Labour Party in 1929. Aged 24, she was not then old enough to vote. On her election, the Manchester Guardian commented:
“It is amusing to reflect that no girl of her own age had a chance of voting for the youngest woman M.P.”
The young Jennie Lee MP truly knew how to hold an audience captive. Her Scottish lilt fascinated London colleagues, her belligerent manner provoked amusement and fascination in equal measure among male colleagues. Along with Ellen Wilkinson, it is difficult to overstate the impact her very presence had on a male-dominated House of Commons at a time when ‘serious matters of the economy’ were gaining increasing prominence on the political agenda. Yet Jennie was no feminist, at least not in overt sense. Too young to have joined the suffrage movement, like Barbara Castle after her she had no history in the women’s movement and consequently regarded the separate women’s branches within the Labour Party as a political cul-de-sac. To a woman so deeply engrained in the concept of class struggle – and fiercely loyal to her ILP roots – the idea of championing one sex over the other seemed alien and somewhat irrelevant. Equality for women would follow from the introduction of true socialism; it was not a separate cause.
Jennie was also irreverent to her core, aware of how unusual she was and unafraid to express boredom, irritation and impatience with others. Her maiden speech in the House of Commons was a case in point. Tackling the subject of the budget, she accused Winston Churchill of ‘cant, corruption, and incompetence’, her gestures more fitting to the storming of platforms than the measured tones expected from a young MP in the house. The Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald is rumoured to have sunk into his seat with embarrassment. For Jennie, it was a triumph. Yet her first period in parliament was to be short-lived. As unemployment worsened from 1930 and a full-blown financial crisis took hold of the country, Jennie became increasingly disillusioned with the government’s failure to apply a socialist solution to what she viewed as a crisis of capital. She fought the policies of MacDonald and Snowden with all the ammunition she could gather, helping to sharpen the divide between the mainstream Labour machine and the increasingly restive ILP-ers. During that parliament, Jennie also began a relationship with the much older (and married) Labour MP, Frank Wise. The affair became a subject of considerable gossip in the tearooms of Westminster. With evident relish, Beatrice Webb noted in her diary:
“The fascinating little Jennie Lee is the “friend” of her fellow M.P. – Wise. She is passionately attached to him and 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.”
For Jennie, it was a very serious attachment. Frank’s sudden death in 1933 was a devastating blow to her, compounding the misery of her own election defeat (along with most of her Labour colleagues) in the 1931 general election. That election defeat plunged the Labour Party into a decade of painful and divisive self-assessment. Jennie was an early casualty of that process. By 1932, power within the party had shifted from a dramatically weakened Parliamentary Labour Party to the trade union movement. The unions’ implacable hostility to the independent-minded stance of the ILP set them on a collision course. Tribally loyal to the ILP, Jennie’s position was fixed. Nye’s entreaties were made in vain.
Refusing to accept Labour Party discipline, the ILP disaffiliated from the Labour Party in 1932. At that time, it nurtured hopes that it would emerge the stronger of the two movements. It was not to be. Jennie marched out of mainstream politics with the ILP and into the political wilderness. With its members now forced to choose between the Labour Party and the ILP, the latter entered a period of rapid decline. Jennie stayed true to the ILP. It was her blood, her political family, the organisation which had raised her. She lacked Nye’s enduring faith in the Labour Party as the sole route to reach ‘socialism in our time’.
The demise of the ILP and the misery of losing Frank Wise broke Jennie’s spirit. Her shining confidence waned. For a time, those closest to Jennie feared she would take her own life. In 1934, still grieving for the path her life had taken, she married Nye Bevan. It was a marriage of deep respect and one which many colleagues remember as unusually successful. As Nye’s reputation within the Labour Party grew, Jennie came to see him as the natural leader of Labour’s left, the saviour of the ‘true’ party. Slowly, a process of re-negotiating her own expectations in life took hold. Nye would come first, with Jennie as his faithful support. In hindsight, the war years were Jennie’s second turning-point. Called in by Beaverbrook (Churchill’s wartime Minister for Air Production) to keep aircraft factories running during the Blitz, the Second World War aided Jennie’s political rehabilitation. She performed her task with a characteristic no-nonsense approach, gradually moving back towards the Labour Party as it prepared its bid for post-war power. Having re-joined, Jennie was selected for Cannock and took the seat in 1945. She was once again back in the fold.
But the old confidence was gone. Rather than forge a fresh parliamentary career, Jennie deferred to the promoting Nye. She became his chief defender in the internal wars which tore at Labour’s heart in the 1950s (Barbara Castle caustically referred to Jennie’s attitude as ‘Nyedolatry’). It was only after Nye’s premature death, in 1960, that Jennie moved out of his political shadow. The opportunity for a new political challenge came from Harold Wilson, who offered her a post as the first Minister for the Arts. Jennie was one of only four women appointed to cabinet posts by Wilson (the others being Barbara Castle, Judith Hart and Shirley Williams).
At Wilson’s request, she also took on the formidable brief of delivering the Open University, a task which she alone seems to have thought was achievable. They were not the prestigious briefs so craved by younger colleagues. Yet in both roles, Jennie was extraordinarily effective. While civil servants found her ‘difficult’ (she breezed into meetings late, left early, and made no attempt to disguise boredom or contempt) her skills were well-matched to the task of forcing through changes which were either deeply unpopular or of no interest to her Labour colleagues. The very existence of the Open University can be linked to Jennie’s grinding determination to see the project through on her own terms. Meanwhile her legacy as Minister for the Arts – a post she held for six years – is considerable. The famous dictum of ‘money, policy, silence’ grew from Jennie’s resolve to give the arts a broad policy framework, the money to fulfil it, and then a respectful silence as to the means by which it was fulfilled. Jennie showed Westminster that the arts should be at arms length from politicians. She persuaded her party that arts mattered, and that legacy endures in the Labour movement’s deep commitment to the importance of the arts to our national identity.
So what was Jennie Lee’s major contribution to the Labour movement? In policy terms, it was undoubtedly her spectacular success in the Arts. In practical terms, the Open University is one of the most enduring monuments to the Wilson years, made possible by Jennie’s stubborn resistance to its abandonment or dilution. Yet I believe her greatest contribution to the Labour movement was simply herself: a young, fiery orator in a male-dominated world; a passionate (if unwilling) role model to women at a time when the dominant image of a female politician was furs and pearls. And in Jennie’s story of political rise and fall, there is an enduring sense of hope. The rebel came to terms with the mainstream of the party, without compromising who she was. It is a hope echoed in Nye’s message to Jennie at the turning-point of her political career:
“I tell you, it is the Labour Party or nothing… And I am by no means convinced that something cannot yet be made of it.”
Postscript: For readers who want to learn more about Jennie, I recommend Patricia Hollis’ outstanding biography, Jennie Lee: A Life, winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Writing.
NEXT WEEK: Beatrice Webb