This Great Journey

THE quarter of a century with which Jennie Lee’s book deals is one of the most critical in England’s history. This book is a personal account of the hopes, fears, moods, and events which go with the life of one of England’s most politically active and self-conscious women. It is the story of more than one person; it is the story of the miners of Scotland, of the British Labor Party, and of England itself. Written with ease and humor, with insight, sympathy, anger, and understanding, and shot through with the modesty of the British working class, it has all the strength and weakness of the common people. By telling a good story, Miss Lee throws more light on the real nature of British politics and objectives than all the propaganda and political theory which the war has produced.
The main character of the book is not Jennie Lee but the British working class, in particular the miners of Scotland. If there had been only one Jennie Lee this book would never have been written; but there are thousands of them, though few went to Parliament when they were twenty-four years old, traveled in foreign parts, or charmed surly factory workers into working through air raids. From the unknown Jennie Lees, the wives of striking miners, the foremen in the factories, the others who remained true to the class from which they sprang, this one draws her strength: with them she was reared, on them she relies, to them she owes the measure of sane thinking which runs through everything she says. Because she has always kept her faith with them the events of the last twenty-five years make sense to her.
Miss Lee’s frame of reference is simple. If is a burning desire to get rid of the system and conditions which produce poverty and war; she represented people who wanted the same things and she did not, like Ramsay MacDonald, succumb to the “aristocratic embrace" or become, like Gallacher, a Parliamentary pet. Her book contains no political theory, yet it is nothing else but a political theory; it is the product of democracy as a way of life, of great political simplicities. It is part of her temperament that when others welcomed refugees from Europe, because their sufferings were the more spectacular, she did not forget the unspectacular rotting of a whole people in idleness and poverty in the Scottish hills.
The story of a short life covers the recent history of a long struggle, that of the British working class to achieve self-respect, and humane conditions. It veers between a great fear for the future of the Labor movement, which Miss Lee has watched in its varying fortunes for a quarter of a century, and the great hope of a new England born in the throes of war. To those who can see it, this human and personal story, constructed with the rambling consistency of an angry and emotional woman, gives the essence of Britain’s political and economic decline during the last two generations. Miss Lee forces us to contrast the condition of the British working class in 1914 with its temper in 1939. In 1914 the Labor movement, like the Indian nationalist movement, comparatively young and full of optimism, threw itself into the war with qualities which guaranteed victory. But the moral of Miss Lee’s story is that no one can understand the desperate plight of England in these latter years without understanding how Mr. Charchill and his friends broke the back of the British Labor movement, admittedly with the aid of some of its leaders, until nothing but a party machine dominated by trade-unions remained. Yet it was a beaten and retreating movement, she insists, which helped foree Mr. Chamberlain into war against Fascism in 1939 not for love of Churchill’s empire but out of hatred of Fascism.
Miss Lee draws reason for hope not from leaders, unless it be Cripps, but from the people she knows so well. She brings out the hopeless inadequacy of Churchill and his party in dealing with the political issues of the war; there are few Tory tricks she does not understand, and she knows to what a plight such tricks have brought her country. Miss Lee is optimistic by nature but she gives good cause for her argument that, obtuse as England’s rulers are, her people have rediscovered their old vitality and that out of the war has sprung new hope. The England that Miss Lee loves and works for is one that goes far to compensate for the inglorious role of the Tory Party and its lethargic Labor opponents in the years before Dunkirk. Her book brings before us the other half of England — the half about which we hear so little and which matters so much to the fight against Hitlerism. G. E. T.