Lee, Jennie (1904–1988)

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Lee, Jennie (1904–1988)

Scottish politician who held several high offices in the British Labour Party and pursued a left-wing socialist program in Parliament for solutions to social problems. Name variations: Jennie Bevan; Mrs. Aneurin Bevan; Baroness Lee of Asheridge. Born Jennie Lee on November 3, 1904, in Lochgelly, Fifeshire, Scotland; died on November 16, 1988, in London, England; daughter of James Lee (a coal miner) andEuphemia Grieg; Edinburgh University, M.A., 1926, LL.B, 1927; married Aneurin Bevan, on October 24, 1934; children: none.

Elected to British Parliament for North Lanark (1929); defeated (1931); traveled as a lecturer, journalist and author (1931–40); worked in Ministry of Aircraft Production (1940–45); elected to British Parliament for Cannock (1945) and held seat until retirement (1970); served on National Executive Committee of Labour Party (1958–70); appointed parliamentary secretary, Ministry of Public Building and Works (1964–65); appointed parliamentary under-secretary of state for Education and Science (1965–67); was chair of the Labour Party (1967–68); appointed minister of state (1967–70); created Baroness Lee of Asheridge (1970).

Selected publications:

Tomorrow Is A New Day (Crescent Press, 1939, republished as This Great Journey, Farrar & Rinehart, 1942); Our Ally, Russia (W.H. Allen, 1941); My Life With Nye (Jonathan Cape, 1980).

Jennie Lee was only 24 years old when she took her seat in Parliament. Becoming the youngest member in the House of Commons was an astonishing accomplishment for any politician, but for it to be done by a woman in 1929 made it all the more remarkable. Her passionate socialism brought her into a natural alliance with Aneurin Bevan, who came from a background similar to her own. They would marry in 1934, and when both were elected to the House of Commons in 1945, they would become the first husband and wife parliamentary team. A lecturer, politician, journalist and author, Jennie Lee was never simply the distaff side of a political team.

Lee was born on November 3, 1904, in Lochgelly, Fifeshire, Scotland. Her grandfather Michael Lee was a renowned trade unionist, pioneer founder of the Fife Miners' Association and a member of the Scottish Miners' Executive. Her father James Lee was a miner and an active trade unionist who held membership in the Independent Labour Party, and her mother Euphemia Grieg was the daughter of hotel owners in the nearby town of Cowdenbreath. For several years during Jennie's childhood, her family were proprietors of the Arcade Hotel, which she said was her childhood nursery. In 1912, her parents left the hotel business, and her father returned to coal mining and union activities. Her home environment introduced this coal-miner's daughter to socialism at an early age. Jennie's politics and warm-hearted brand of socialism were profoundly influenced by James Lee's commitment to social change. Her earliest impressions were of a neat, well-kept four-room home where socialist politics were served along with the traditional oatmeal and home-baked scones.

Jennie Lee received her early education at Cowdenbreath Elementary School where she earned a first place in the final examinations. This enabled her to attend Cowdenbreath Secondary School instead of going to work. Desiring more education, she eventually attended Edinburgh University with the aid of grants from the Fife Education Association, the Carnegie Trust, and numerous other scholarships and prizes won by her proven success in the university classroom. Although she was more interested in socialist activities, she seriously applied herself to her studies and was graduated in 1926 with a master's degree in education and a teaching certificate.

Her last year at Edinburgh University was the year of the General Strike in Great Britain. Lee divided her time between school and working at the strike headquarters, and spent her summer in Ireland raising money for miners' soup kitchens. She then returned to Edinburgh and in 1927 received an LL.B degree. For two years, she worked as a schoolteacher in the Scottish mining areas to support her family, since her father, like other miners who backed the General Strike, had been blacklisted by the mine owners. Lee admitted she had no bent for teaching, was too impatient, and did not believe in what she was doing. The misery, poverty and conditions endured by mining families in their schools, homes and jobs convinced her that she could not effect any change in a classroom. She passionately wanted to help the working classes.

In 1928, the Independent Labour Party, impressed by her convictions, propaganda skills, and background, asked her to be their candidate for North Lanark in the next general election. Despite her youthful age and lack of political experience, she was persuaded to accept the offer. Prior to the expected general election, the incumbent died, necessitating a by-election. In March 1929, Jennie Lee became a member of the British Parliament with a majority of 6,578 votes. The following year, the Labour Party won the general election and formed its second government under Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald.

Lee quickly gained something of a national reputation at Westminster. Being a woman made her unique, but her youth, attractive "Salvation Army lass" image, engaging Scottish accent and near revolutionary passion made her a favorite of the media. Her colleagues in the House of Commons admired her. Just a few weeks after taking her seat, she broke with tradition by assuming an active role in the budget debate. Having come to London because she resented the slums, poverty, and unemployment plaguing Scotland, she became identified with the left wing of the Labour Party. She had passion and a socialist viewpoint and rapidly became a forceful exponent of the Labour Party policies. Lee was an industrious parliamentarian who visited her South Lanark constituents on weekends and spent many hours weekly answering their letters and working on policy matters. In 1929, she traveled to Vienna to study the Austrian Socialist Youth Movement. The following year, she accompanied Labour Party members John Strachey, Aneurin Bevan and George Strauss to study mining and industrial towns in the Soviet Union.

Politics for me, means the fight against poverty.

—Jennie Lee

The Labour government of Prime Minister MacDonald proved ineffectual in finding an economic solution to the worsening Great Depression. Jennie Lee and a few other Labourites tried to influence their party to stay with its own policy and forgo compromises with the Liberal and Conservative parties. By 1931, conditions were so bad that Labour demanded that the rich should bear the burden of higher taxes and investment reductions. Failing to gain support for this policy, the Labour Cabinet resigned, and MacDonald, at the king's request, formed the National Government, a coalition government to fight the Depression. MacDonald's decision split the Labour Party, but on October 28, 1931, the National Government coalition handily won the general election, 554 seats to 61. Jennie Lee was one of many members of Parliament who lost her seat.

During the intraparty fighting following the Labour Party split, Lee went with the Independent Labour Party faction. She stood for election to the House of Commons in 1935 and in a by-election in 1943, but she would not regain a seat in Parliament until after World War II. Lee became a lecturer and free-lance journalist. Starting in December 1931, she frequently made lecture tours to the Soviet Union, Europe, and the United States. She disregarded protocol or agent's schedules to carry her message to the working classes in the countries she visited. In America, she spoke to such diverse groups as Appalachian coal miners and Southern cotton workers while advocating unions without color restrictions. Her journalistic career included articles published in the New Republic in America and in numerous British newspapers and periodicals. She covered politics in the Soviet Union and the Popular Front election of 1936 in France.

After a friendship of five years and an engagement of barely a month, Jennie Lee married Aneurin Bevan on October 24, 1934, in a ceremony at Holborn Registry Office in London. Lee recalled that when they had first met his mind was totally absorbed with other matters, and his clothes, black suit and striped trousers, were so out of character that she had shuddered. But she came to admire his personality, brilliant mind, and socialist convictions. They were an unconventional couple from the beginning. Both had doubts about the institution of marriage but neither wanted to offend the conformist values of their constituents. Nye, as he was known by his friends, purchased a special marriage license in hope of avoiding the press, and the bride had no wedding ring or cake. They became deeply attached to each other, and despite their meager incomes, lived a rich and happy life together. They would eventually have a home in London and a small farm in Buckinghamshire. Lee's parents came to live with them and to run the household for the active couple. Bevan loved to tell his friends that he had to marry Jennie in order to get his mother-in-law; it was a close-knit family with true affection.

Lee remained active in journalism, lecturing and politics following their marriage. In 1929, she had published her autobiography, Tomorrow Is a New Day, and in 1941 she published Our Ally, Russia. During World War II, she served for a short time as lobby correspondent for the Daily Mirror. Shortly after the surrender of France in 1940, she accepted Lord Beaverbrook's suggestion that she work at the Ministry of Aircraft Production. She served as a shop-floor supervisor whose responsibility was to keep the high-speed production lines moving. Because of her oratorical skills, she was sent to the United States in the autumn of 1941 by Brendan Bracken on a propaganda tour to win support for Britain, and was in California when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor. In 1942, she resigned from the Independent Labour Party in a disagreement with its radical antiwar position.

Following the war, Lee made peace with and rejoined the Labour Party she had left in 1931. In the Labour Party landslide victory of July 1945, she was elected to Parliament from the Midlands constituency of Cannock with a majority of nearly 20,000 votes. Lee remained politically rebellious, and in 1946 was one of 59 Labourites who signed an amendment to a speech by King George V when he opened Parliament. Favoring encouragement and collaboration with countries pursuing socialism, the amendment was a criticism of Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin's foreign policy views, and the signers believed that a democratic and constructive socialism could serve as compromise to the inevitable destructive conflict between American capitalism and Soviet communism. Both Lee and her husband were romantic leftists who sincerely believed politics was much more than a political exercise. As with the 1946 amendment, they fought for a type of socialism that was not in the mainstream of the Labour Party.

Lee found herself, in the years following the war, moving towards a personal decision concerning her husband and politics. She concluded that Nye was doing the things she hoped to accomplish, but with much more success than she could have. The public view of Nye as an aggressive man was, to her, offset by her knowledge that he possessed a vulnerable innocence that could destroy him politically. She believed she could prevent him from laying himself open to attacks from his enemies outside and inside the Labour Party. Bevan was a brilliant, self-educated man, but he sometimes lacked the discipline needed in politics. Though her temperament made the decision difficult, she realized that she was married to an exceptional man and that she could contribute more to the cause of socialism as the wife of Aneurin Bevan than as the politician Jennie Lee. Her decision was a true sacrifice for a woman who had broken into the male club and entered marriage in a spirit of equal partnership. With her formal education, she helped him with his writing and speeches. She always had his ear, and there were many of their colleagues who felt her advice was too negative. All her life, Lee was a rebel who remained opposition-minded in the belief that the Labour Party had lost its sense of direction and was drifting toward conservatism. It is doubtful that she influenced her husband's politics dramatically, but she was certainly an irritant when it came to his attitudes toward rivals and enemies.

As Bevan rose politically, Lee remained his most ardent supporter even as she quietly pursued her own career in Parliament. Uniquely, they were two politicians of similar sympathies who shared companionship and home but in public did not normally operate as a political duo. Bevan was minister of health in the 1945 Labour government of Clement Attlee, and became minister of labour in January 1951. He soon resigned in protest over cuts in social expenditures when Attlee increased expenditures for rearmament. Although a colorful personality, brilliant speaker, spontaneous debater, and charming man, Bevan was sometimes rude and very stubborn. His political radicalism became a divisive force and his views created a wing of the Labour Party known as "Bevanism." He was defeated as party leader in 1955 by Hugh Gaitskell. Accepting his party's choice, Bevan moderated his opinions on foreign policy and colonial affairs. At the time of his death from abdominal cancer in 1960, the view of socialism he and Lee shared was in general decline. (Their ideals had a brief resurrection nearly two decades later when Michael Foot, Bevan's biographer and socialist kinsman, was elected and served as party leader for a short time.)

Jennie Lee became the loyal guardian of Nye's memory and achievements. Retaining her seat from Cannock in Parliament, she had confined herself to the role of a backbencher during the height of Nye's influence. She now resumed her own political career and in 1964, at the age of 60, was appointed to the Cabinet as minister for the arts by Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson. It was a new office, and the energetic Lee threw herself into the job: government spending

on the arts doubled during her four-year tenure. One of her greatest achievements was the Open University, originally called the "University of the Air" by Wilson, but renamed by Lee. Using television and a regular faculty, the Open University was created to provide education through a correspondence program. It was a special sponsorship for Jennie Lee, who protected it from financial problems while proudly maintaining the academic standards of universities. She proved that socialism was concerned with eliminating spiritual as well as social poverty.

Lee remained a committed socialist while in office, once even threatening to resign over planned social security cuts. The government compromised and agreed to trim the defense budget as well. In 1966, she was made a privy counsellor. Having served on the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party since 1958, she received a great honor when she was elected party secretary in 1967. She also served as parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works from 1964 to 1965, and minister of state from 1967 to 1970. In 1970, she lost her seat in the general election and was created a life peer as Baroness Lee of Asheridge.

In retirement, Lee enjoyed the theater, gardening, walking and reading, while remaining an enthusiastic champion of socialism, the trade-union movement, and the struggle against poverty. She had published her autobiography, This Great Journey, in 1963. In 1980, she authored a book about life with her husband, My Life With Nye. She was awarded an honorary LL.D from Cambridge University in 1974, made an honorary fellow of the Royal Academy in 1981, and received an honorary doctorate from Edinburgh University in 1982.

Jennie Lee died at age 84 of an undisclosed illness in London, England, on November 16, 1988. Her lifetime endeavors and her epitaph may have been defined in her own words: "Politics, for me, means the fight against poverty."


Campbell, John. Aneurin Bevan and the Mirage of Socialism. NY: W.W. Norton, 1987.

Foot, Michael. Aneurin Bevan: A Biography 1897–1945. London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1962.

——. Aneurin Bevan: A Biography 1945–1960. NY: Atheneum, 1974.

"Jennie Lee," in Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1946, pp. 337–340.

Lee, Jennie. My Life With Nye. London: Jonathan Cape, 1980.

——. This Great Journey. NY: Farrar & Rinehart, 1942.

——. Tomorrow Is A New Day. NY: Cresset Press, 1939.

suggested reading:

Bevan, Aneurin. In Place of Fear. London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1952.

Brome, Vincent. Aneurin Bevan. NY: Longmans, 1953.

Krug, Mark M. Aneurin Bevan: Cautious Rebel. NY: Thomas Yoseloff, 1961.

Lee, Jennie. Our Ally, Russia. London: W.H. Allen, 1941.

Phillip E. Koerper , Professor of History, Jacksonville State University, Jacksonville, Alabama