Book review: The people's princess

Jennie Lee: A Life by Patricia Hollis, OUP pounds 25
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Is it possible simultaneously to be a force for good, and an insufferable human being? The question is central to the art of biography. On the face of it, the problem was resolved long ago. Where Victorian hagiographers loyally airbrushed every peccadillo, the modern writer revels in wickedness and deviation. And yet there is a nervousness. Even today, writers hesitate to treat discreditable attributes as the essence of an admired figure. The result is often an unconvincing mix of warts-and-all and special pleading.

Hence it is refreshing to read a life of a much loved political figure that is bold enough to be entirely clinical. Patricia Hollis's study of one of the best-known women leaders of the century is no debunking account. On the contrary, it is a warmly appreciative one. Empathy and even admiration are there, and the heroine is given her due. The portrait, however, is the more compelling precisely because there is no attempt to explain defects away. Hollis paints Jennie not as 25 or even 50 per cent, but as 90 per cent, awful. The gamble works. So far from losing out from such treatment, Hollis's Jennie emerges as a believable, three- dimensional, and even sympathetic individual.

It is a remarkable achievement. Patricia Hollis - herself a prominent Labour politician, as well as a distinguished historian - has used 80 boxes of previously virgin source material, and a wealth of interviews, in order to displace the self-serving accounts provided by the subject herself (Jennie made a habit of publishing autobiographies). As Hollis points out in the preface, the result is three barely-connected story lines. There was Jennie Lee the hedonistic political star (in the 1920s and 1930s), Jennie the self-effacing wife (in the 1940s and 1950s), and - finally - Jennie the relentless minister (in the mid and late 1960s).

They were not entirely separate. One link was passion, another was egomania. A third was an ingrained socialism derived from a Scottish Independent Labour Party (ILP) background. Born in 1904, the descendant of campaigning miners, Jennie was from childhood a people's princess, who never doubted for a moment her destiny. Though working-class, she was never poor. Her family ran a miners' hostel, and she was petted and spoilt by relatives and customers alike. As a result, she "entirely escaped the drudgery of cleaning and childminding", a lack of domestic training that served her well throughout her adult life.

As an adolescent she was what she remained: obsessive, moody, arrogant. Natural quickness - rather than assiduity or intellect - got her the scholarships that made higher education possible. At Edinburgh University, she was an effortless star, and - after a brief experience as a schoolteacher - she became, almost as effortlessly, ILP candidate and then MP for North Lanark at the age of 24. It was significant that she found her sex a help, not a hindrance. According to Hollis, the impoverished mining community that elected her was intrigued by this energetic young woman, "niece by adoption" of the revolutionary Clydesider MPs. The press, meanwhile, was as excited as much by the sight of her "leaning elegantly over the table as she played billiards in the working-men's club" as by her evangelical oratory.

The future Labour National Agent, Sarah Barker, likened her at this time to "a rose with the dew still on her". At Westminster, her "smoky beauty" made it easy to get attention, hard to be taken seriously. Hollis notes how the House, faced with such an apparition, was more entertained by her fiery speeches than frightened by them. There were some unworthy jokes. "My dear, if you ever become a mother," asked one Tory, "please can I have one of the kittens?" Male MPs patronised and petted her in the name of gallantry, women MPs twice her age were irritated by her. It was a mark of her energy, will and self-belief that she survived at all - and of her fragility that, from time to time, she collapsed into severe depression.

How could a young woman from the Scottish working-class, with the world at her feet, cope in the British capital of the 1920s? One answer was by seeking out powerful male protectors. Some were platonic, like the left-wing landowner Sir Charles Trevelyan. Others weren't. Her first great love was Frank Wise, a married intellectual briefly in Parliament, with whom she had an affair from 1929 until his sudden death in 1933. Her second was Aneurin Bevan, then merely one - as Hollis puts it - "of an undifferentiated bunch of Welsh boyo mining MPs".

Hitherto, the Nye-and-Jennie romance has been treated as one of the great political love stories of the century. Hollis queries this picture. Jennie, she suggests, remained loyal in spirit to Frank, and her Bevan relationship was "as much maternal as sexual". That seems to have been Jennie's own version: perhaps it should not be taken at face value. She certainly behaved as if she was in love. There was vigorous sex, and - on her side at least - fidelity. Alongside the ruling political passion that united them, there was also personal tenderness and fierce mutual protectiveness. Indeed - in love or not - Jennie, the least domesticated of women, ended up a homemaker in spite of herself, giving Nye a private background that was "warm and welcoming, a refuge, a place of peace".

At first, Jennie was the bigger celebrity, in spite of losing her seat in the 1931 election. But there was a crucial difference. Jennie's adherence to James Maxton's sectarian ILP isolated her from Labour's mainstream, while Bevan - though he briefly flirted with the radical Labour MP Sir Oswald Mosley - saw no future outside the traditional movement. In 1930, Jennie wrote to Wise, with a wisdom she did not sustain, that "the Mosley- Bevan grouping is young, vigorous, unscrupulous. They are to be reckoned with but I simply cannot conceive of working with them. There is something fundamentally unsound mentally and spiritually."

Mosley's breakaway New Party led to fascism, Maxton's breakaway ILP to oblivion. When the ILP cut links with Labour in 1932, Jennie went with it. "Why don't you get into a nunnery and have done with it?" Bevan remonstrated at the time, furious at her senseless gesture. The decision cost Jennie the chance of an early return to Parliament. It also tipped the emotional balance in her marriage.

At first, the change was hidden. In the late 1930s, Jennie and Nye campaigned side by side, on Spain, unemployment, the means test. They were an elegant duo - careless of conventional opinion, friendly with artists and writers, feted by Lord Beaverbrook, the essence of Fitzrovian radical chic. It was the war that brought a decisive shift. Though Jennie became official morale-booster for Beaverbrook in the aircraft factories, and fought one high-profile (but disastrous) by-election, it was Nye who grew in stature and reputation. In 1945, Nye entered the Cabinet as one of its most forceful members. Jennie returned to Parliament as Labour MP for Cannock, and metamorphosed into Jennie the political wife.

Why? How? The idea of a famous, successful and independent-minded woman politician, without domestic responsibilities, sinking her own ambition into that of her husband, today seems not so much the supreme sacrifice as against nature. Part of the explanation, Hollis makes clear, is that Jennie had been brought up to believe in class not sex as the cause of oppression. "She didn't mind that it was a man's world," as the author puts it. "Most of the time she enjoyed it." It was also partly that women politicians in the mid-20th century seldom thought in terms of solidarity, or fighting the gender cause. "The Bevanite feuds of the 1950s played havoc with women's networking," points out Hollis - most Labour women MPs were on the Gaitskellite side. But it was also that she had lost the will, and even the ability, in a House stuffed with eager novices, to fight on her own behalf. So the queen bee became a worker, feeding Nye with emotional support, political inspiration, and factional venom.

Much of the blame for the split in the Labour Party that began with the Cabinet resignations of Bevan and Harold Wilson in 1951 over health charges has been laid at Jennie's door - with justice, in Hollis's view. Jennie backed her husband with undivided loyalty, while treating the Labour Establishment with suspicion and contempt. "Whenever his resolve to resign wobbled," according to the author, "she strengthened him in it."

Hollis believes that Bevan and Wilson were right on the issue, disastrously wrong on the tactic. She speculates that if Bevan had not resigned, Labour might have won the next election, and Attlee might have been replaced by Bevan as premier at the head of a Labour government that would have taken credit for rising affluence. Instead, Labour soon joined Nye in the wilderness, where he remained for the rest of his strife-torn life. Jennie had claimed him back from the mainstream, sidelining him in the oppositional tradition in which she had lived most of her political life. Hollis shows how, during this final period of Nye's tragic impotence, she became more than ever his closest aide and - many believed, on the Labour Left as well as the Gaitskellite Right - most mischievous confidante.

If that had been all, Jennie's legacy would be, at best, highly dubious. But there was more to come. Bevan died of cancer in 1960, when she was 56. At first, she sank into grief-stricken withdrawal. Then she re-emerged, liberated by the former Bevanite Harold Wilson, who in 1964 gave her the new post of Minister for the Arts, with responsibility for setting up his pet project, a University of the Air.

In the final and historically most important section, Hollis provides the reader with a detailed account of Jennie's life-after-Nye. In so doing, she offers a model essay on how the British ministerial system, at its most effective, actually works.

Predictably, Jennie was an exceptionally bad departmental minister. She did not read briefs, never understood the limitations on the power of No 10, and was ignorant about public expenditure. She treated senior civil servants with impatience (except one, with whom she had an Indian- summer affair: "She adored him, and the sexual games they played," says Hollis). Her strength was her link to Wilson. "Jennie's way of being a minister was to use the Prime Minister," writes the author. "She quoted him, phoned him, wrote to him, went to see him, as the occasion demanded. It never failed, and he never failed her." Armed with this trump, and a personal slave in the shape of the formidable Arnold Goodman, she blasted a path through Whitehall red tape, persuaded her party that the arts mattered to ordinary people, and transformed the status and importance of arts policy. In addition, she succeeded - against many sceptics - in establishing the Open University as a socialist monument to the Wilson years.

Her reign was brief. In the 1970 election, she lost Cannock to the biggest anti-Labour swing in the country - partly the result, Hollis thinks, of neglecting her constituency work. Wilson made her a peer, and she lived another 18 years, increasingly in the political shadows.

A more tiresome, opinionated and objectionable woman is hard to imagine - or for that matter a worse advertisement for feminism, a cause in which she took scant interest. Why then the continuing interest in her? If Jennie Lee was selfish, she was also - unfashionably but intriguingly - a romantic, an idealist and a fearless fighter. If she lived for the moment, she never forgot where she came from, or whose future she was about. Patricia Hollis paints the portrait superlatively well. Nye was wont to say, after haranguing an opponent, "That is my truth. What is yours?"

Is this stunning biography Jennie's truth? She would not have liked it. But it is inconceivable that anybody will ever get closer.