Cream of tartars

21st November 1997 at 00:00
JENNIE LEE: A Life. Patricia Hollis. Oxford University Press. Pounds 25.

Jennie Lee was the epitome of a formidable woman politician long before Mrs Thatcher took power, a new biography reveals. Yet she was also a kind-hearted boss, says former colleague Clive Saville, and she left a rich legacy to the nation in a the shape of the OU

As a wet-behind-the ears private secretary nearly 30 years ago, I was totally in awe of Jennie Lee. What Patricia Hollis calls her "mixture of earthy peasant and decidedly impatient dowager duchess" made a volatile cocktail, calling for a more sophisticated response than I was able to offer.

This splendidly enjoyable biography captures all the force of that tumultuous personality and provides the foundation for a better understanding of the Jennie Lee phenomenon.

Herself an experienced Labour politician as well as an academic historian - and now a minister in the Lords responsible for social security - Hollis has a clear understanding of socialism's capacity for internecine warfare and of the process of compromise that is the lot of most ministers. But not Jennie Lee.

By the time Jennie became a minister she was already 60. Her appointment was seen at the time as a "wreath for Nye". Following Bevan's death four years earlier, his widow had lost the will to live. Now back from the brink, she was Britain's first Minister for the Arts, and also charged with giving substance to Harold Wilson's pipe-dream of a University of the Air.

In 1964 a bewildered civil service had to cope with a Jennie Lee who from the first had been privileged and demanding, escaping domestic chores to absorb from her father and visiting Independent Labour Party lecturers the radical socialism of a Scottish mining community.

On her first campaigns her passionate eloquence and dazzling beauty allowed her to hold an audience for an hour without a note (and made her impatient, 40 years later, of private secretaries who prayed without hope that she would for once stick to the text).

She was an MP at 24 but lost her seat two years later. Her loyalty to the doomed ILP meant she was not to return to the Commons until 1945. Hollis shows her as a "sultry, smoky beauty . . . frank, physical and uninhibited", but already prone to depression. The first great love of her life, married and 20 years older than she, died, leaving Jennie bereft. But Nye was already in the wings, and in 1934 she married him - and her destiny.

As the war made Bevan the leader of the Parliamentary left, Jennie became the first of the Bevanites. Hollis gives a brilliant account of their political and private lives together. She is particularly strong on Nye's role in the post-war Labour government, on housing and, of course, as the creator of the National Health Service. Jennie's role was to protect him at the time of his "teeth and spectacles" resignation in 1951.

Later, during the struggles of the Fifties, she was the confrontational one, "the dark angel at his shoulder". "When Nye was in two minds, Jennie .. . only had one".

When Nye died in 1960, Jennie was distraught. But she was still there to support Wilson against Gaitskell, and in 1964 was rewarded with the job that was to earn her a place of her own in the history books.

From the beginning, Jennie was an embarrassment to colleagues and Cabinet bosses who were higher than she in the ministerial pecking order but of lesser standing in the party, less well known in the country and not so adept at getting their own way.

Now, as in the Fifties, Jennie was brave and resolute; which meant she was also obstinate, bull-headed and sometimes wrong. Her first thoughts were usually her last. She was impatient with those who were indecisive, dismissive of those who could see both points of view, and contemptuous of those who were paralysed by it.

She refused to be troubled by the ambiguities that in government troubled Nye. It was all about political will. Enough of it, she believed, and you blast your way through the system.

Blast she did. Between 1964 and 1970, expenditure on the arts rose from Pounds 10 million to morethan Pounds 22 million, on the principle that the country could afford the arts in good times and needed them in bad.

Her colleagues generally accepted that this was something that was going right for Labour, and when all else failed she knew that Harold Wilson was her "trump card".

Under Jennie, the knot of the South Bank was unravelled to give us the National Theatre. Sadler's Wells became English National Opera and got the Coliseum, Housing the Arts did wonders in the regions, the national museums' purchase grants were doubled, the Young Vic was launched and the National Film School established.

But if the arts presented an opportunity waiting to be seized, the idea that became the Open University was more of a challenge. Both broadcasters and educationists were openly sceptical. The whole idea could easily have been diluted into a series of pilot projects in technical and adult education, but Jennie would have none of it. Her vision was of an autonomous, independent, degree-giving university that was open in access but uncompromising in its standards at the point of exit. That is what she got.

How she did it is grippingly told. Here, as so often, Jennie was well served by those who fell under her spell: Arnold Goodman, whose unwitting underestimates of cost got the OU over its first hurdles; Ralph Toomey as the civil servant who could draft his way out of anything; Walter Perry as the first vice-chancellor; and Jane Drew as the inspired architect who got the first building completed in five months flat.

Working for Jennie Lee was an unpredictable rollercoaster. One dreaded the short fuse, the drumming fingers and the rapid changes of mood.

But she was genuinely kind, enjoyed young company and remembered that private secretaries had wives. Arts grandees were frequently surprised to be told that Miss Lee would be bringing two guests - or more if the fancy took her.

Nearly 25 years later, when responsible for teacher education, I had the opportunity to pay a debt of gratitude and affection. Jennie had died in 1988, but her great legacy, the OU, was now planning to launch into initial teacher training through a post-graduate certificate. It needed a couple of million or so from the Department of Education for development costs before there could be any fee income. It got the money.

As a result, the OU is now producing more than 1,000 teachers a year who would not have been able to enter the system by any other route. I hope Jennie would have been pleased.

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