Scottish MP was the “power behind the throne” of NHS founder

Labour MPs  Aneurin (Nye) Bevan and  Jennie Lee.
Labour MPs Aneurin (Nye) Bevan and Jennie Lee.
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She was a Scottish Labour MP who grew up in a Fife mining village during the Depression.

But now a new play, receiving its Scottish premiere, reveals how Jennie Lee from Lochgelly, was the real power behind the throne, urging her fellow Labour MP husband Aneurin Bevan on in his plans to form the National Health Service.

In the year the NHS celebrates its 70th anniversary, ‘Nye & Jennie’ starts its two-night, plus matinee, run tomorrow night at The Studio, at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh.

Lee, (1904-1988), who later played a key role in founding the Open University, and in 1970 was made Baroness Lee of Asheridge, worked as a teacher before being elected Independent Labour Party MP for North Lanarkshire in 1929 - a rare occurrence for a woman in that era. In 1945 she became the Labour Party MP for Cannock in Staffordshire.

She met Bevan, the Welsh firebrand MP for Ebbw Vale, in South Wales, on the rebound from an affair with a married MP and the couple married in 1934, and had a tempestuous relationship.

Both of them were loved and loathed by their fellow MP’s. Bevan, dubbed the Bollinger Bolshevik by Lord Beaverbrook, with Lee, his Lady Macbeth, the dark angel at his shoulder, refusing to allow him to compromise.

Geinor Styles, artistic director of Theatr na nÓg, based in Neath, South Wales, said: “The play is about two incredible politicians of their time, the love they had for each other, their political marriage and their legacy.

“He recognised himself in her. They were both from a Labour Socialist background, growing up in working-class areas where both families were miners.

“Bevan saw this strong, uncompromising individual whose principles were unshaken.

“What the public saw was a great man with a woman by his side. But in actual fact Lee was a major driving force, challenging him to go further and further.

“She edited his speeches, debated with him, told him ‘we need to get your arguments straight’. But her influence has largely been overlooked but the play rectifies that wrong.”

Meredydd Barker, wrote the script after reading Lee’s autobiography ‘My Life With Nye.’

Barker said the couple were “Socialist royalty” in the 1940s and 50s.

“It’s been forgotten because anyone who’s in the shadow of Nye Bevan is going to be completely crowded out, to be honest.

“I think the way she influenced him - and many contemporaries thought it was a bad influence - was that she stops him being so agreeable or making compromises that would normally be made.

“For somebody who’s famous for seeing through the NHS - which took a lot of strength - Nye was very good at making political compromises and Jennie wasn’t.”

As well as the Open University and her influence on Bevan’s NHS, Lee is remembered by a host of buildings named in her memory. These include the Jennie Lee Students’ Association in Kirkcaldy, the Jenny Lee Library in Lochgelly, both Fife, and Jennie Lee building at the Open University campus in Milton Keynes.