James Lee decided to give up the hotel and once again became
a miner. Jennie became a regular visitor to Mr. Garvie's Bookshop
in Cowdenbeath. Garvie was blind and used to read to him from
his favourite book, A History of the Working Classes. Another
family friend, Jim Beveridge, lent Jennie a copy of the Ragged
Trousered Philanthropist by Robert Tressell. Jennie Lee was
also very fond of the Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde.
was chairman of the local branch of the Independent Labour Party.
Jennie accompanied her father to these meetings and heard several
leading socialists including James Maxton and David Kirkwood.
Lee like most members of the ILP was opposed to Britain's involvement
in the First World War. In the newspapers she read about Aneurin
Bevan, a nineteen year old miner from South Wales, who refused
to take part in the war. Bevan, who was later to marry Jennie
Lee, told the local magistrates: "I am not and never have
been a conscientious objector. I will fight, but I will choose
my own enemy and my own battlefield and I won't have you do
it for me."
As a fourteen
year old schoolgirl, Jennie remembered the excitement of her
father and friends when they heard news of the Russian Revolution.
After the war James Lee was one of the leaders of the Hands
off Russia movement that attempted to counterbalance the campaign
led by Winston Churchill to invade Russia.
to go to university but her parents were unable to afford the
fees. However, with support from the Carnegie Trust, who agreed
to pay half her fees and the Fife Education Authority, who awarded
her a grant of £45 a year, she was able to become a student
at Edinburgh University.
Jennie joined the Labour Club, the University Women's Union
and the editorial board of the Rebel Student. One of Jennie's
first campaigns was to have Bertrand Russell elected as Rector
of the university. Russell a pacifist and campaigner for women's
rights was a popular figure with university students at that
time. During the First World War Russell was sacked from his
post as a lecturer at Cambridge University and imprisoned for
his involvement with the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF), an
organisation that encouraged men to refuse war service.
a great reader and favourite authors at university included
H. N. Brailsford, Bertrand Russell, H. G. Wells and Olive Schreiner.
It was while at university in Edinburgh that Jennie gained her
first experience of public speaking. Jennie could often be found
on the Mound in Princess Street making speeches on Socialism
and votes for women on the same terms as men. Jennie also attended
weekend schools organised by the National Council of Labour
Colleges where she met Ellen Wilkinson for the first time.
General Strike Jennie returned home to give support to the miners.
She had just won a MacLaren Bursary, which she was able to hand
over to her family struggling on her father's strike pay. When
the strike was over James Lee, like many union activists, was
sacked, blacklisted and after four months unemployment was forced
to take work as a manual labourer.
political work did not interfere with her studies and she left
Edinburgh University with a degree in education and law. She
taught at her school in Cowdenbeath but after an impressive
speech at the 1927 National Conference of the Independent Labour
Party, Jennie was invited to become the ILP candidate for North
was elected to Parliament at a by-election in February 1929
when she turned a 2,028 Conservative majority into a Labour
majority of 6,578. At twenty-four she was the youngest member
of the House of Commons. The Labour leadership selected Margaret
Bondfield and the Chief Whip, Tom Kennedy, to introduce Jennie
into Parliament. Jennie rejected the idea and insisted that
two old friends from Scotland, Robert Smillie and James Maxton,
should be her sponsors. This was the first of many conflicts
that she was to have with the leadership of the party over the
next few years.
first speech in the House of Commons was a fierce attack on
Winston Churchill and his budget proposals. Afterwards she congratulated
Jennie on her speech and told her that he also wanted to help
the poor but she had to understand that: "The richer the
rich became, the more able they would be to help the poor".
In the House
of Commons Jennie's closest friend was Frank Wise, one of the
leaders of the Independent Labour Party. Wise was married and
although he considered the possibility of divorce, they eventually
decided against it. As she pointed out in a letter to Wise:
"I feel that divorce and marriage would do both of us immense
harm. Certainly public non-Catholic opinion is becoming more
tolerant about divorce, but in triangles where all three parties
are fairly equal as to age and other matters. The situation
where a man has lived with one woman for twenty years, and becomes
attached to another woman about twenty years younger, is too
many unpleasant types, to be lightly accepted."
close friend was Aneurin Bevan, who represented Ebbw Vale in
South Wales. Jennie was particularly impressed with Bevan's
attack on David Lloyd George. The two young MPs had much in
common. They both had fathers who were miners who had suffered
terrible industrial defeats in 1919, 1921 and 1926. As she wrote
later: "We were both now pinning our hopes on political
action. We were eager to test to the full the possibility of
bringing about basic socialist change by peaceful, constitutional
totally opposed to Ramsay MacDonald and the National Government
he formed in 1931. Like most Labour MPs who refused to support
MacDonald, Jennie was defeated in the 1931 General Election.
Over the next couple of years Jennie spent her time writing
articles for the ILP New Leader and on lecture tours of the
United States and Canada. In November 1933, Frank Wise collapsed
and died. The following year she married Aneurin Bevan.
was defeated again at North Lanark in the 1935 General Election.
Jennie remained involved in politics, and was especially active
in trying to persuade the British Labour movement to create
a Popular Front with other European groups in an attempt to
stop the spread of fascism in the 1930s.
Lord Beaverbrook, Minister of Aircraft Production, employed
Jennie Lee in his department. She later left to work as a journalist
for the Daily Mirror. In the 1945 General Election, she won
the mining constituency of Cannock in Staffordshire. In the
government formed by Clement Attlee, Jennie's husband, Aneurin
Bevan, was made Minister of Health and was responsible for the
introduction of the National Health Service.
agreed with Aneurin Bevan about most political issues, but was
unhappy with his decision to reject unilateral nuclear disarmament
at the 1957 Labour Party Conference. However, she was aware
that his decision was based on what he thought was best for
the Labour movement and was deeply shocked with the way he was
treated by fellow socialists during and after his speech. For
as he had told her, "I can just about save this Party,
but I shall destroy myself in doing so."
1964 General Election Lee was appointed arts minister and was
responsible for what Harold Wilson later called the greatest
achievement of his Labour Government, the setting up of the
Open University. She retired from the House of Commons in 1970
when she was created Baroness Lee of Asheridge. Jennie Lee died