In the fifth blog of this sombre series that pays tribute to interviewees from our Oral History Project, Emma Peplow looks back on the life and career of John Lee, Labour MP for Reading (1966-70) and Birmingham Handsworth (Feb 1974-79), who we interviewed in 2013…
John Lee was born in Bagshot, Surrey. His comfortable background (his father worked in the City) might be a surprise to some given his later left-wing politics. Yet in his interview for our oral history project he told us that both his parents held centre-left views: neither were ‘orthodox Tories’, his father a ‘right-wing Liberal’ and his mother ‘lent to the Left’. That said, Lee’s committed socialist views were inspired by Archbishop William Temple’s Christian socialism, as well as critiques of 1930s politics such as Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley and the anti-appeasement Guilty Men. Lee describes here how these were the ‘seminal influences’ on his politics.
Lee attended Reading School and read History at Christ’s College, Cambridge. At this time he began political involvement, first joining the wartime Common Wealth party before becoming a Labour member at university. Active in both the Cambridge Union and his college debating society, the cut and thrust of political argument remained an interest throughout his life. In his interview Lee emerges as a man with strong convictions and sense of duty: his Times obituary described him as a ‘Mr Valiant-for-Truth’.
After National Service in Egypt, Lee joined the Colonial Service and spent seven years in the Gold Coast (now Ghana). Upcoming independence and a bout of typhoid brought this career to an end, and whilst recovering at home he met his future wife Margaret. A ‘mixed marriage’ both in politics and religion (she was a Conservative and a Catholic), they had two children together, Joanna and Julian. He studied for the bar whilst working as a lawyer for the BBC, and began a political career. In 1964 he lost the election for Reading by just 10 votes, before taking the seat in 1966.
His left-wing views influenced both his stance on many of the major issues of the day – nationalisation, nuclear weapons, entry into the EEC – as well as his general approach to politics: ‘I spoke my own mind, I was never a complete conformist, even within the Tribune group.’ He retained an interest in the politics of Africa, and was proud of ‘voting against racist legislation’, citing votes over the fate of the Ugandan Asians and Rhodesian independence as examples. This independent streak of course meant he was not a favourite of the Whips, whom he compared to drains, sewers and dustbins: ‘necessary, not beautiful’. He remembered being ‘reprimanded’ by them on different occasions; his response was ‘a rude letter’. Lee enjoyed the energetic and confrontational side of politics in the Chamber. Here he discusses opposing legislation on reform of the House of Lords to describe how rebelling and filibustering could be an MP’s ‘duty’:
Despite, or perhaps in part because of this, Lee was well-liked across the House: ‘I probably had at least as many friends on the Tory side as … my own.’ This was all, he remembered, despite being too busy to spend much time in the bars or tea-rooms at Westminster as he juggled politics, his legal career and spending time with his family. Despite holding small majorities for most of his career, Lee had less interest in ‘nursing’ his seat, arguing that his constituents were best represented by his being in Westminster rather than living in the constituency:
After losing his seat in Reading in 1970, he fought two successful elections for Birmingham Handsworth in 1974. Doing so whilst ill, both election campaigns and an exhausting trip to the Western Pacific on a constitutional enquiry in early 1975 left him ‘absolutely shattered’. With a small Labour majority Lee expected another quick election and took the decision to stand down, one he later regretted. He considered standing again, but decided instead to focus on his family and legal career. He worked on legal aid briefs until he finally retired, nearly 80 years old. Lee died aged 92.
For more blogs from our Oral History project click here.