by Patricia Hollis
Faber Finds paperback & ebook
Enoch Powell took the view that all political careers end in failure (‘because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.’) One could argue, and on the same grounds, that most political careers never get very far past failure in their beginnings or middles either. Certainly, few politicians who rose no higher in front-line politics than the rank of junior minister are much remembered for the marks they left behind.
Surely the grand dame exception here, though, is Jennie Lee (1904-1988), rightly hailed by her biographer Patricia Hollis as ‘the first and defining Minister for the Arts and founder of the Open University.’ (Let’s remember, too, that Harold Wilson considered the accessibility and quality of the Open University to be the greatest achievement of his government.)
Hollis’s book Jennie Lee – A Life (1997) won both the Orwell Prize for best political biography and the Wolfson History Prize for best book of its year. Gerald Kaufman, MP and author of the durable How to be a Minister, hailed it in the Telegraph as ‘superbly researched, engrossingly written, scrupulously honest.’ We are proud to reissue it now in a Finds edition newly updated by Baroness Hollis, in paperback and ebook formats.
On point of legacy one might wish to remember Jennie Lee above all for the crowning political success into which her distinctive talents were deeply invested. But, as history would have it, it simply cannot be overlooked that she was, from 1934 to 1960, married to Aneurin Bevan, whose post-1945 presiding over the birth of a comprehensive universal national health service is felt by a fair few people to be the greatest thing Labour has ever done or will ever do. Though she was surely no shrinking violet, Lee certainly did decide to subsume her own ambitions into what she saw as the higher calling of supporting Bevan. ‘He was doing what I wanted done,’ she once said, ‘infinitely better than I could have done it.’
Though it may be a bit of a crude prolepsis to speak of Bevan and Lee as a Labour ‘power couple’, still, insofar as the term has been applied more recently to Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper (even to Jack Dromey and Harriet Harman), it could be argued that the man from Trenegar and the woman from Fife wore it with rather more of a flourish. And after Bevan’s death Jennie became the first Bevanite, overseeing the bearing of the flame by helping Michael Foot with his two-volume biography of her late husband (both volumes are, of course, Finds) and so helping to ensure that the challenge, opportunity and burden of leading Labour’s left wing would always be seen among cognoscenti as ‘the mantle of Nye.’
Patricia Hollis maps Lee’s life broadly into three stages: the first fiery phase in which her unyielding principles, exercised via the puritan Independent Labour Party (ILP), duly led her into self-imposed political exile; the second passage in which she and Nye made their formidable union (she routinely perceived, especially in struggles with Atlee and Gaitskell, as Nye’s ‘dark angel’, forever dragging him away from the rocks of political compromise toward pure shores); and then the third act of Jennie’s late-flowering ministerial career.
She was 60 – Nye had been gone four years – when Wilson brought her into the fold as Arts Minister, an appointment commentators inevitably characterised as ‘a wreath for Nye.’ (She had earlier, wisely, refused a post at Health, sniffing a Wilsonian ruse to buy a piece of Nye’s reputation at a discount.) Her six years in the post saw government funding for the arts nearly trebled. We got, at last, the National Theatre, and then the English National Opera. The film industry was strengthened, the National Film School opened, arts in education flourished more generally, and then of course came the University of the Air.
As I say, Patricia Hollis has now revisited her work from 1997, in a new preface for the Finds edition wherein she addresses, inter alia, elements of Lee’s private life – ‘personal material, that I chose not to use believing it would be hurtful’ – which can now be discussed more openly thanks to the passage of time.
Another significant turn of events in the interim since first publication is that after New Labour’s landslide election victory in May 1997 Tony Blair made Hollis Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions, a post she held until the reshuffle of 2005. And so experience of government and how the machine works has also given Hollis a fresh vantage on her original material, such that in the new preface she takes the opportunity ‘to reflect further on some of the conclusions offered back in 1997, not so much on Jennie’s achievements in the Arts and with the Open University, of which I am an unstinting admirer, but of her Ministerial style, where I am not.’ Hollis’s itemisation of the personality traits freely exuded by Lee in the exercise of her portfolio makes for rather flabbergasting reading today, and yet, as the author equally freely admits, it was the only way Jennie Lee knew to get things done. And done they certainly were:
‘(W)hat today would derail a Minister – bloody-mindedness to colleagues, indifference to her Secretary of State, visible contempt for the department in which she was located – was instead Jennie’s strength… She simply did not care whether she offended proprieties or bypassed hierarchies. She wasn’t interested in working with colleagues to develop shared policy. She wasn’t willing to negotiate. She wasn’t building a career. She didn’t need the approbation of her Secretary of State. She wasn’t interested in working the civil service machine. She didn’t want to know how it ran. She didn’t want their advice. She didn’t trust them at all…’
You won’t find any of that in Kaufman’s How to Be a Minister or in any work before or since that presumes to advise on how the levers of government ought to be pulled. All the more reason, then, to look anew at the story of Jennie Lee, told so superbly by a woman who followed in Lee’s footsteps and into another Labour government thirty years on.