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The life of Jennie Lee: an Edinburgh alumna worthy of praise

ByLiberty Phelan

Mar 11, 2020

Ever since I read Patricia Hollis’ excellent biography of Jennie Lee, the pioneering Labour MP who founded the Open University, I haven’t been able to stop talking about her. I just cannot understand why there isn’t a feature length film about her life, or better yet, an eight-part Netflix series. So I’m using The Student to spread the message. Movie executives: listen up.

Jennie Lee was a miner’s daughter from a small village in Fife, and she was steeped in the Labour politics of her family from the time she could talk. Remarkably quickly after graduating from the University of Edinburgh in 1927, she became the MP for North Lanarkshire. This made her the youngest woman in the House of Commons before she was even old enough to vote, at a time when all 10 female MPs were assigned to a single cramped office and there was no women’s bathroom. She fought hard for her constituents, many of whom lived in slums with earth floors and poor sanitation, and warred with the more moderate side of her party. She vehemently opposed Ramsay MacDonald’s coalition with the Tories and as a result lost her seat when she ran unendorsed in 1931.

Jennie was beautiful, and her self-confidence and ease in the company of men made her all the more attractive. During this time, Nye Bevan, a fellow MP, became her close friend, though he did not hide his romantic interest in her. But Jennie was falling in love with a man 20 years her senior, Frank Wise, an impressive politician considered sure to become a Labour Cabinet member one day. Inevitably, he was married, with teenage children. Their affair became increasingly public, and his wife was deeply hurt. He came close to getting a divorce for Jennie, but they both knew the scandal would devastate their political careers. Then the choice was ripped from Jennie’s hands when Frank died suddenly from a brain haemorrhage. Jennie fell apart, but was not allowed to mourn publicly or even attend Frank’s funeral. Frank’s wife Dorothy wrote her a remarkably empathetic letter, saying ‘My dear Jennie, I do understand how intolerably hard it is for you who have no official ‘right’ to be considered, and who have to carry on as if it were only a great friend and not more you have lost.’  

Her friend Nye stepped in and took care of her in her grief. Soon they were living together and he cajoled her into marriage despite her reluctance. Though she may not have been in love when they married, over the years they developed a deeply loving partnership. After the war, Nye became the Minister of Health and Housing and founded the National Health Service and Jennie, to her delight, was re-elected to Parliament as the MP for Cannock. Jennie always pushed Nye towards more socialist policies, and was not afraid to rebut his speeches in parliament when she disagreed with him. He achieved more than anyone thought possible: one night, after signing off on NHS hearing aids, Nye came home for dinner in high spirits, telling her ‘Tomorrow thirty thousand people will hear who cannot hear today,’.

But in 1960, Jennie was once again struck down by grief when Nye died of cancer at just 63 years old. She struggled to cope with the loss of the partner she had built her life with, the man who might have led a socialist Labour Party to power had he lived. She suffered from depression, and felt aimless and lonely for years, but found a purpose again when in 1964 Harold Wilson asked her to become the first ever ‘Minister for the Arts’ in his new government. She supervised the creation of the National Theatre on the Southbank, which would never have gone ahead without her dogged efforts to cut through bureaucracy. Wilson also entrusted her with his idea for a ‘University of the Air’, an initiative that would harness the emergence of the television to offer degree-level study to whoever wanted it. This eventually became the Open University, a world-leading institution which celebrated its 50 year anniversary in 2019. It has awarded qualifications to more than 2 million part-time students who needed to fit their education around working or caring for their family.

Jennie never thought of herself as much of a feminist, not seeing why she should focus on women’s issues like the other female MPs rather than miners’ rights and the working class struggle in general, just because she was a woman. But she deserves to be celebrated as a pioneering woman because she fought tirelessly to enact her socialist beliefs in society, and in doing so changed Britain forever, never even considering that being a woman might stop her.


Image: Spudgun67 via wikipedia.org