on 8 January 2010
This biography of Jennie Lee, at one time a household name in the UK (though now all but forgotten), is brilliantly well-written and manages to combine detail and depth with lateral scope in relation to its subject. The authoress is one of the "New Labour" instant peers, a veteran of the gravytrain quangocracy and in-groupism that is so typical of The Party formerly Known As Labour, but that fact does not detract from her achievement in writing this work; neither does the fact that I have little sympathy for its subject.
Jennie Lee was born into the heart of radical Labour politics, her father being a local leading light of the ILP (more radical than Labour as such) in Scotland. He was an MP (Labour) at 26, left Labour during the 1930's to join with the ILP (when Labour joined with Conservatives to form a National Government under Stanley Baldwin) and became a Labour MP again in 1945, working with or alongside her more famous husband, Aneurin Bevan. She was made minister for the arts under Harold wilson in 1964 and died in 1988.
Probably few people today realize that Oswald Mosley was recognized as the best of the leading people in the ILP before he left it to form The New Party and, later, the British Union of Fascists.
The picture painted herein is by no means all positive or favourable. She was obviously a heavy drinker and, perhaps, alcoholic, who often turned up drunk, particularly in her later years. She comes across very much as a female bully and was, overall, the kind of person so often seen under the Blair-Brown slide....a hard-faced person who has done well out of "Labour". Even her devoted secretary, on first seeing her during WW2, thought she was like a film star, with an arrogant haughty look and "beautifully dressed". I noted the photographs in the book: one showed her and Bevan, in 1935 (when much of the UK was still in poverty and Depression), with a Jewish playwright and his film star wife. They have two lovely cars and are enjoying a picnic. After WW2, both she and Bevan are pro-Israel and pro-Zionist and moreover, subsidized by a Jewish property millionaire called Samuel, who "owned much of Mayfair". Their salaries, extra-political incomes and tax situation were markedly murky, especially after 1945. They bought large houses, had staff, etc. Lee was obviously in love with money as well as with Bevan and her own self. When her indigent brother wanted money, she sent him "£18, with my contempt". Nice...
I laughed at some of the stories, as when she visits, as Minister, the National Portrait Gallery and meets an acquaintance, Roy Strong, there: "oh, Roy, what are you doing here?". Came the answer, "Well, actually, I am the Director.." He was obviously one of many less than impressed by her.
She was sexually "liberated" in a relatively illiberal age and one wonders whether she was not really focussed on her own sexual pleasure as much as anything. When her 1930's boyfriend died, it only took her a few weeks to embark on another affair.
She and Bevan were both anti-Hitler, of course, the sort of people who did their best to bring about the disastrous European conflict and who indeed profited by it.
Jennie Lee went to both America and the Soviet Union in the early 1930's and had the cheek to lecture to each country about the other, though her criticisms seem only to focus on the USA. There is no word here about the dreadful excesses of the Soviet regime, eg. Collectivization. I did wonder whether she was not an agent, at least "of influence", for Stalin. she had "Russians" to stay in the 1930's but the book does not name or describe them in detail. Probably she was just another of the "wilfully naive", like the late and unlamented Michael Foot, yet another promoter of war with the German Reich and also another one who avoided having to fight or even serve in that conflict.
As for her political achievements, not much, really. She did not "work in aircraft production" with Beaverbrook, as another reviewer suggests. She inspected balloon factories, meaning made "royal" visits etc. In fact, 75% of the aircraft which the balloons pulled down in the war were British or other Allied (see Myths and Legends of the Second World War), so her efforts, if any, were counterproductive. Bevan believed in quality council housing and all credit to him for that (though his own achievements were mainly hot air ---he was, pre-dating Kinnock, an archetypal Labour "Welsh Windbag" in fact). He liked Rioja and bought or was given cases of the stuff. He and Lee were not so much champagne Socialists as much as Rioja Radicals. But Bevan comes over (despite his drinking, perjury and bisexual adventuring) as better than his wife, as a person. One feels that Jennie Lee would fit right in to "New Labour", once she left out the socialistic rhetoric. Her expenses claims and the like would no doubt fill many newspaper columns. It might be crass, but she seems a germinal New Labour Blair Babe type in some ways.
This book shows someone who was basically a selfish careerist, another "New" Labour trait, whose abilities were mainly those of rhetoric and posturing and playing the grande dame, rather than actually improving the lives of any British people.
A good book, worth reading.
ADDENDUM July 2010: Further to my review, I now know that, in or about 1931, Oswald Mosley's economic policy for the New Party (later, the British Union of Fascists or BUF) was drawn up by not only Mosley himself but also and mainly by Aneurin Bevan and by John Strachey. Bevan is still quoted with approval by kneejerk "antifascist" Labourites, while Strachey became both a Labour minister after 1945 and a Communist. In 1931, all three were trying to formulate a new way forward for the country. That "fascist" economic policy was discussed, to some extent approvingly, by no less a figure than Maynard Keynes.