Jennie Lee

1904 – 1988


Jennie Lee, Baroness Lee of Asheridge PC born Janet Lee in Lochgelly, in Fife, Scotland. The daughter of James Lee and Euphemia Grieg, she inherited her father's socialist inclinations, and like him joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP).

She graduated from university and worked as a teacher in Cowdenbeath before being adopted the ILP candidate for the North Lanarkshire constituency, which she won at a 1929 by-election, becoming the youngest member of the House of Commons. Immediately she was in conflict with the Labour leadership in the commons. She insisted on being sponsored by Robert Smillie and her old friend, James Maxton to be introduced to the commons, rather than by the leadership's preferred choice of sponsors.

Lee's first speech was an attack on the budget proposals of Winston Churchill and met even with his approval, with him offering his congratulations after their exchange in the Commons. Lee forged a parliamentary reputation as a left-winger, allying herself to Maxton and the other ILP members. She was totally opposed to Ramsay MacDonald's decision to form a coalition National government, and in the 1931 general election she lost her seat in parliament.

Lee married the left-wing WelshLabour MP Aneurin Bevan in 1934, with whom she remained until his death in 1960.

Despite being out of the Commons Lee remained active politically, trying to secure British support for the Spanish Popular Front government under threat from Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War. She also remained active inside the ILP and took their side in their split from the Labour Party, a decision that did not meet with her husband's approval.

She later returned to the Labour Party from the ILP, and at the 1945 general election she was once again elected to the Commons, this time to represent the Cannock constituency in Staffordshire. She remained a convinced left-winger, and this brought her sometimes into opposition with even her own husband, with whom she usually agreed politically.

She was appointed arts minister in the Harold Wilson government of 1964 and played a key role in the formation of the Open University, an act described by Wilson as the greatest of his time in government. Lee renewed the charter of the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1967 which saw an expansion of its work in the regions as well of the creation of the new arts institutions at London's South Bank Centre. She also introduced the only UK White Paper for the Arts and following the 1967 reshuffle was promoted to Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science after two years as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. Between 1964 and 1965 Lee had been Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Public Building and Works.

Lee was defeated at the 1970 election in Cannock by Patrick Cormack and she retired from frontline politics when she was made Baroness Lee of Asheridge, of the City of Westminster on 5 November 1970.

She died in 1988 from natural causes at the age of 84.


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