Four full lives of Labour, from cradle to grave

Jennie Lee

December 5, 1997

Jennie Lee had at least four remarkable lives. She was an Independent Labour Party radical in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution when everything seemed possible, the wife of Nye Bevan, the widow of Nye Bevan and minister for the arts in the Harold Wilson governments of 1964-70. Virtually from the nursery she was groomed, flirted with, made love to and cultivated by the Labour movement. Her decision to be in Bevan's shadow was rather forced, and the role never suited her. She was, from a very early age, a star. As her life progressed, she moved on to grander stages, but then the spotlights gradually shifted elsewhere. Like an ageing movie star, she became brittle as her career faded: one can almost imagine her in those last years living a little like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.

In consciously taking the supporting role to Bevan, there might also have been a little self-knowledge: she was better as a rebel. Charitably, you could say she played the necessary role of the soul of socialism, putting forward the maximalist vision against which to measure the minimalist programmes of a timid party. Uncharitably, her politics were frozen in the applause of those first ILP audiences -her style fixed on the great issues of 1926. Her vision: a possible alternative future from those dark days. She articulated the hopes of a generation, watched as many of those aspirations were achieved and warned that the gains made would need to be defended furiously.

She did the job of platform orator and party conscience long after it ceased to be a job that could be done. Sadly, she did not notice that the applause had gone from enthusiasm for the articulation of a possible future to sentimentality for the rhetoric of the past. In this must be her first failure; but, as with all of her failures, it was a failure that many others would have been pleased to enjoy as a success.

She also failed as a constituency MP and as a minister. Her Cannock constituency treated her harshly but pretty much as she deserved; it was perhaps more her misjudgement to run in 1970 than their ungratefulness that was to blame. As a minister, she failed in the conventional sense of fighting her corner and building her new job, minister of the arts, into an empire. But she presided over a golden age in subsidised arts funding, which might have come anyway but was greatly enhanced by the direct line from Nye's widow to "Nye's little dog" -Harold Wilson. She also played a key role in the creation of the Open University.

At least four lifetimes full of a life. At least three great love affairs,one in her sixties,and an untold number speeches and rows -Jall in the "never apologise, never explain" mode. Her lack of explanation and presence cost her seat at Cannock, but it gave her the opportunity, when being made a peer, to insult George Brown and take the oath in a "bright pink Crimplene trouser-suit".

Lee's lives and loves, passions and drives are beautifully and frankly explored in Patricia Hollis's compelling book. This has the feel of a definitive life. At times the honesty of the portrait makes painful reading. Lee's ability to use and discard people is positively aristocratic and oddly English for a Scots woman. Sometimes the subject is less central to events than the narrative suggests,as in the war period; sometimes the political complexities, especially the motives of opponents, are skimmed over - but never enough seriously to distort the picture.

The book raises many questions; I will confine myself to one on biography, one on vanity and one on socialism. This book, by one woman politician about another, navigates the boundaries between the public and the private to render an integrated political life that achieves the synthesis of personal feeling and behaviour and public action without being overwhelmed by trivia or speculation.

Lee left openly honest and plentiful letters and diaries: this makes her an enviable subject. She wrote in a consciously and subconsciously private voice. This private-private communication is lacking in most of the letters and diaries of most politicians because they write in a public-private voice that is subconsciously aware of the creation of an historical record. Lee was writing a genuinely private script that did not acknowledge the public nature of its contents. She revealed much of herself and showed that her vanity was rather different from that of a Gaitskell or, even, a Bevan.

The nature of this vanity, a recurrent theme of the biography, is my second question. By the end, I did not know whether to envy or pity the talent, looks and drive that had pushed her to the heights of the British political elite. One envies the glory of the climb but pities that each stage of her ascent made her into someone who expected a round of applause for entering a room. Her family and the Labour movement made great sacrifices to push her on and she felt the responsibility, but they also, pace Larkin, "****ed her up". When the applause stopped, she was rather confused. Some reviewers have implied that Lee was a monster because of her vanity. She was not, and I doubt that such critics would have called a male MP who behaved as if he owned the ground he walked on, a monster. Her vanity was constructed from the hopes of her class, and it was a weight as well as a reward. The pitiful thing is that the search for applause carried her away, until her final speech to conference, from those people and towards fighting for the subsidised arts. A great cause, but not the commanding heights.

When Cannock rejected her, Lee was confused and depressed. She had one script, which had worked for 50 years, and she had inspired a love, devotion and political engagement from virtually an entire class. But now, no one wanted to listen. The quality of this script leads to my final question.

Was Lee's brand of socialism a positive contribution to the development of the Labour movement or was she a bad influence, the maverick who wrecked Nye by always pushing him to rebellion and away from being the responsible inside-left leader that Attlee hoped he would be? In part, this negative picture was true. But when properly led herself, as by Wilson in the 1960s, her gifts could be used constructively. In her Norma Desmond phase she might have said: "It's the politics that got small." This is a rounded life of an extraordinary woman that I cannot recommend too highly.

Brian Brivati is reader in history, Kingston University.

Jennie Lee: A Life

Author - Patricia Hollis
ISBN - 0 19 821580 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 459

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