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Jennie Lee (also known as Baroness Lee of Asheridge) was a Scottish politician and journalist, known for her upfront orating and strong socialist views. First elected as an MP in 1929, Lee spent much of her political career fighting against class struggle and for the increased funding of the arts, becoming the Minister for the Arts in 1954. Lee is credited as helping lay the foundation for the ‘University of Air’ later becoming the Open University, the largest University in the UK for undergraduate learning. A strong supporter of combating the inequality of class struggle, both Lee and her husband, Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan, were humanists and have left a significant impact on British politics.

Life

Jennie Lee was born on the 3rd November 1904 in Lochgelly, Fife, Scotland. Being the daughter of a coal miner, she was born into the working class, something Lee never forgot about in her later life. Lee’s father, James Lee was a prominent member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and would regularly take Jennie to local meetings, massively influencing and shaping her political views. In 1922 she attended the University of Edinburgh as a trainee teacher, graduating in 1926, where she continued to teach for another 3 years.

Lee would become a prominent member of the ILP, often speaking at their events across Scotland. Her skills as an orator were remarkable and she was able to captivate an audience with ease. She was also a hit with the media due to her young age, good looks and passion for politics.  Lee was selected by the ILP to run as their candidate for North Lanark in the 1929 by-election. Due to the fact that she was unable to vote (women younger than 30 were unable to vote until later that year), her campaign grew a lot of attention and became a headline story. Lee won the election, becoming the youngest MP of her time at the age of 24. She made a strong impression during her maiden speech, accusing Winston Churchill (then Chancellor of the Exchequer) of ‘cant, corruption, and incompetence’. Lee was also different to the majority of her other female MP’s as she did not define herself as a feminist in same way her colleagues did. Due to the suffragette movement having been before her time Lee saw the battle of the sexes irrelevant and inferior to the concept of class struggle. Lee’s time in parliament was however, short-lived and she lost her seat in the 1931 election.

In the years before the Second World War, Lee turned to political journalism. While following the political drama that plagued the Labour party during this period, Lee met Aneurin “Nye” Bevan, a Labour MP. Sharing similar beliefs and urge to quell class inequality, the two became closer and closer, eventually getting married in 1934. During the war Lee served in the Ministry of Aircraft Production and as a political correspondent before being re-elected in 1945 as the Labour MP for Cannock.

During Harold Wilson’s Government, Lee became the Minister for the Arts in 1964. During this time she was able to obtain further funds for the arts, strengthen the film industry and abolish theatre censorship. She also was part of the team that founded the Open University. In 1966 Lee became a member of the Privy Council. Lee was unseated in the 1970 election, but was given a peerage, becoming Baroness Lee of Asheridge. Baroness Lee spent her last years writing, publishing two books before her death on the 16th November 1988 in London.

Influence

An open university in Great Britain’s circumstances today is not a dream,… is not a luxury: it has become an urgent necessity.

Jennie Lee

Jennie Lee left a large impact on British politics. When she first entered politics Lee left a strong impression on her London colleagues due to her belligerent and stubborn, but compassionate, manner and she is widely seen as a role model for women yearning to enter politics.

Jennie Lee by Walter Bird, 15 February 1965 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Lee’s largest success was without a doubt the role she played in creating and defending the Open University. This education institution was vital in delivering an education to anyone anywhere and still is today. Although she was fixated on combating class struggle, rather than inequality between the sexes, her efforts in funding the Open University allowed women from across the country to gain access to an education that would have otherwise been unavailable to them.

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