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Jennie Lee, Baroness Lee of Asheridge

Jennie Lee, Baroness Lee of Asheridge (3 November 190416 November 1988) was born Janet Lee in Lochgelly, in Fife, Scotland. The daughter of a miner (who later gave up work in the mines to run a hotel), she inherited her father's socialist inclinations, and like him joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP).

Early life

In her childhood she met socialist leaders such as James Maxton (who would have a profound influence on her) and David Kirkwood. She opposed the UK's involvement in the First World War, and hoped to attend university, but her parents found they were unable to afford the fees involved. She managed to secure support from the Carnegie Trust which allowed her to attend the University of Edinburgh.

At university she became further politically involved, joining the Labour Club there, and taking part in the campaign to have Bertrand Russell elected as University Rector. During the general strike Lee returned home to assist the striking miners, even donating a bursary she was receiving to her parents to tide them over.

First term as MP

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-ers in parliament. 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.

Out of the Commons

In her private life at the time she had formed a close relationship with fellow Labour MP Frank Wise, a married man who considered divorcing his wife for Lee, but who did not do so in the end. Wise died in 1933 and the following year Lee married the left-wing Welsh Labour MP Aneurin Bevan, 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.

Re-election

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 convicted left-winger, and this brought her sometimes into opposition with even her own husband, with whom she usually agreed politically. Lee was critical of Bevan for his support of the UK acquiring a nuclear deterrent, something she did not support.

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 but following the 1967 reshuffle was demoted to Parliamentary Under Secretary of State.

Retirement and later life

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

She died in 1988 from natural causes at the age of 83.

Jennie Lee bequeathed her personal papers to the Open University. They are preserved in the Open University Archive. More details and a full catalogue of the papers can be found on the Archive Web pages

Scottish student support

In 2005, the Student's Association of the newly created Adam Smith College in Kirkcaldy, Fife refused to name themselves after Adam Smith, and instead chose the name Jennie Lee Student's Association. The Association claimed Adam Smith is synonymous with "exploitation and greed" and stated "Jennie Lee would be an excellent role model for the students because of the courage and conviction she showed in achieving the aims she believed passionately in".

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