PRIOR, James (b.1927).



8 October 1959 - 9 June 1983
9 June 1983 - 11 June 1987


James Michael Leathes Prior was born on 11 October 1927 and grew up in Norwich. He was educated at Charterhouse School, Surrey and Pembroke College, Cambridge. In 1954 he married Jane Gifford.

At Cambridge, Prior did not join the Union or a political party. He became a professional farmer, and had little political experience when, on his first attempt, he was elected to represent Lowestoft in 1959. He became Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (1970-1972) and Leader of the House of Commons (1972-1974). During Margaret Thatcher’s government he was Secretary of State for Employment (1979-1981) and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (1981-1984), although he was regarded as out of sympathy with some of the views of the Prime Minister and the right of the conservative party. 

He stood down from the House of Commons in 1987 and was made a life peer as Baron Prior of Brampton in the County of Suffolk. Jim Prior passed away on 12 December 2016.

Click here to listen to the full interview with James Prior in the British Library.

Transcript of clip

The other thing of course is that there was no PR, no company had PR people in those days who would spend their time trying to persuade Members of Parliament about the needs of their company or anything like that. There was an old boy, a Commander, Campbell, I think he was called, who was also a lawyer and had his offices just by Westminster Abbey there and when there was a Private Member’s Bill he would help to suggest suitable subjects for a Private Member’s Bill, and you might get a note from him occasionally about some important issues that people were worried about. But, I mean, there was no lobbying of the sort that there is now. Here am I now having not being near Parliament, having had a leave of absence for the last two years, really done very little in the House of Lords ever, I’m still getting invitations to I think four or five different functions a day which would take place or will take place in either the House of Commons or the House of Lords or somewhere which are of interest to a particular group. I mean the whole thing has changed enormously…For me it was quite staggering that…before I went to Northern Island I was hardly ever conscious of it, and I spent three years in Northern Island as the Secretary of State there and when I came back to Parliament after that period, you are isolated from politics when you are in Northern Island, when I came back I noticed an enormous change and the PR was really beginning to be of great importance…Industry felt that it had to get its view across more…the other thing was the whole sort of charity movement and not just those – charities used to just be associated with trying to raise money, but then charities became much more pressure groups than just raising money and the pressure group side would be very active, at that time became very active in parliament and a pressure group would not operate directly with Parliament, would operated through the constituencies and the newspapers and getting people to write to Members of Parliament and so on.

Summary of interview

Grew up in Norwich, went to Boarding School. Father was a lawyer who went into business, mother was a Christian social worker. Father loved racing, gambling, Norwich football club etc: mother got religious but hated everything father enjoyed. Three other children –childhood fairly happy. Not interested in politics but with strong social conscience from mother 02.00. (pause in interview).  Not a political family; father voted Tory, mother probably a reluctant Tory –a “wet”- inherited something of that from her.  Inherited most political beliefs from Charterhouse House Master and Head Master –Robert Birley –“Red Robert” -(great educationalist) 03.20.  Remained lifelong influence.  Impressed by abject poverty of the time –mother made them visit families on poor estates locally 05.20. Birley’s views on freedom and responsibility also important. Didn’t see politics as main aim in life –wanted to go into agriculture and have a farm 06.12.  At University didn’t join Union or Party. World of agriculture –bad state between the wars. Used to visit bankrupt farms with his father (Official Receiver), saw terrible scenes of poverty. War/post-war boom.  Loved growing things and countryside (but has never sat on a horse -“I’m not one of those types”) 07.49.  A professional farmer –not a “knight of the shires” with inherited land and servants etc.  Was surprised when he visited Lord Carrington’s estate that he actually knew about farming 08.56. Comfortably–off family; mother had inherited money –but badly invested; Church Missionary Society was main beneficiary.  Mother’s influence helped form his views at that time.
Contemporaries at school and college –Simon Raven (author) was friend at school. No interest in politics at all at Cambridge. Aware of post-war changes under Labour. He was a “private enterprise man” –wanted to make some money through farming 13.35.  Had no money of his own.  By 1950/1 he did some canvassing in Norwich North for Tory candidate –thought it might be interesting. Describes experience of canvassing  16.00.   National Service experiences –platoon of public school men and cockneys –learnt from each other, good friendships. Found he could work with anyone. Enjoyed his service.
18.35 Political ambitions began. Working as Farm Manager for John Hill, who fought a by-election in 1955 for South Norfolk seat. Liked him, so helped him as a “warm up” speaker. Developed interest in politics.  Tells story of trying to sell house and being asked to put himself forward as candidate for Lowestoft 20.30.  Put his name forward –no doubt that he was going to get selected. Labour seat, but candidate was popular but old and tired.  Didn’t think he would beat him, but he did.   If he hadn’t won he probably wouldn’t have carried on trying.  No idea what political life would be like –never been to House of Commons before he got there. 22.30.   Lack of experience e.g. of Cambridge Union, meant he was a hopeless speaker and debater –a draw-back 23.15.  “The most inexperienced and apolitical person who ever got into politics”.   Balancing business life, family and politics to fight campaign.  Lost his job, had to buy a farm; got a mortgage from friend of father. Now his own boss –could spend what time he liked on politics/farming. Became harder when he got into politics –having young children and needing to find somewhere to live in London.  Deplorably badly paid as MP in those days –couldn’t have done it without farming income.  Had bought land v cheaply and built it up. Was able to send children away to school. Private income was £2-3,000 per year to start with.  Impossible to exist on MP’s salary alone. As young MP tried to get a few part-time jobs -failed to get taken on by anyone. Thought Whips would find him “one or two cosy directorships in the City –never happened to me at all”  28.20.  Happened to colleagues if they got their affairs into desperate states. Then most Tory MPs had quite a bit of money and many Labour MPs supported by unions.   At 1959 Election a number of “fairly racy types” got elected unexpectedly under Macmillan and they had to be supported –“Whips bought their loyalty by finding them directorships”  29.40. 
No help from Government –only got free railway warrant for weekly trip to constituency. No Postage, secretarial expenses, cost of living expenses, research etc. Did constituency work with part time secretary -not so many letters then. Would work in various places in the building with work on their knees –no desk apart from in Library. A part time occupation. 
1959 campaign for Lowestoft. Describes constituency. Held 45-50 meetings-well attended. Visited factories to harangue workers at lunch time –lively times there 32.15. Rough and rude times! Enjoyed it.  Young man not expecting to win. Local issues important –fishing and increasing industrialisation, unemployment, roads and communications, agriculture in rural areas; national issues –took advantage of Macmillan’s popularity.   Little support from national party –Lord Chancellor spoke - “not a ball of fire” – not a critical seat so left to himself.   Small local party with a few good supporters and his own friends. Constituency party not v active between elections 36.40.    Not  being “tried out” for a better seat – not on official candidates list; was interviewed in London. Chosen because he was local. Another competitor was a woman from London – but in those days women were going to find it impossible to get a seat, especially in Lowestoft 38.20.   Labour sitting candidate thought he was safe –but swing in country towards Tories, plus he was a young man who might do something. Election didn’t cost him anything –he had no money to give.   Victory 40.25   -Count was on the morning after then. Toured constituency –people turned out in vast numbers. Even labour supporters appeared happy.   42.00 Arriving in Westminster was like going back to school –fish out of water –didn’t even have a dark suit  -describes dress codes on different sides of House then. Started to build contacts attended Backbench committees e.g. Agriculture –whole party could join them then.  Showed he knew about the subject –asked questions 44.35.  Became Secretary of Agriculture Committee, then eventually Parliamentary Private Secretary to President of Board of Trade (Government was suffering from lack of knowledge about agriculture). Kept on as Secretary. Seen as “promising young man” by then. Didn’t take life deadly serious –didn’t expect to hold seat with small majority.
Ambitious to make his mark; disappointed not to get a job after Night of the Long Knives 47.00.  Then given chance to go to America on Scholarship –“a douceur” from party.  Chief Whip Martin Redmayne didn’t bother to train people much or look far ahead 48.50, but he was coming to notice of people –e.g. seconded the Queen’s Speech in 1962 – public mark of favour and got to know Macmillan.
Mood of House in 1959 and his contemporaries –Margaret Thatcher was one, though she didn’t mix with “the boys”.  Not so much divergence between right and left of party then apart from international matters e.g. Suez Group 52.20.  Young members concerned with Unemployment, Pensions –but not Disablement, which didn’t arise until 1968/9.  He was first person to introduce Private Member’s Bill on Disablement 53.20.  Not the intense politics in the 1960s of later years –nowadays more driven by career politicians 54.15.  Then there were fewer committed, ideological politicians. They had to do other things to support themselves –compares the situation today where they seem to be going back to that situation 55.00. Talks about Allowances issue and the growth of the career politician. Current PM Cameron makes the mistake of not using the experience of backbenchers.  Trend started under Heath with Centre for Policy Studies under Victor Rothschild 57.20.
 Importance of constituency issues –he encouraged people to write but maybe got 50 letters a week. Nowadays they get 50 letters a day (knows nothing about emails).   No company PR then lobbying Members. Mentions one character –Commander Campbell –who would suggest suitable subjects for a Private Member’s Bill and send occasional notes –no lobbying like today 59.50.   He still gets 4-5 invitations to functions every day, even having been absent from Parliament for some time.  Culture of Lobbying became apparent when he returned form Northern Ireland –enormous change (early 1980s). Industry felt it had to get its view across more 1.02.00. Charity movement became more about Pressure Groups –operated through constituencies and press.  After leaving Government and joining GEC he found that they had to use PR people to get their case across to Ministers –“once the PR game had really started, we all had to join in”  -not very fond of it.1.03.25.   Aware of his own involvement with GEC as being useful for influence. Got out of hand though –including charities –mentions his own work with Great Ormond Street.
Experience of dealing with Media 1.06.15 worked with local newspapers; nothing like the pressure then.  TV just developing then –involved with farming programmes –no training, terrified of camera. Training came in via Central Office. 1960/70s used to get calls from BBC to do contributions “down the line” from un-manned Norwich studio –now there will be a room full of people.
Working life of MP.   First speech 1.10.00 encouraged not to speak in first six months.  Employment Bill 1959 affected his constituency, so he made maiden speech  -never more than 15-20 people in Chamber. Fuss about his comments on farm workers’ pay 1.11.30.  Row about his involvement with  Birds Eye reception in House of Commons to announce expansion in Lowestoft.  Upset older members –“propaganda”.   (pause in interview)  Working hours –Monday mornings to Thursday night. Two mornings in Standing Committees –to makeup numbers without speaking. Constituency work.  Was lent a flat in London then rented a flat for £8 per week in Westminster. No allowances for it.  Wife came up with him. Two children at Boarding School, two others went to Day School in London. Pact that during Term time wife would spend time with him in London and during holiday she would spend all the time in Suffolk with children  -not going to live separate lives 1.17.00.    Aware of other people’s marriages going wrong.   Having wife in London helped build relationships with other members –via kitchen suppers etc.  
Few relationships with members of other parties –until he got into Government. Time spent in Chamber –a lot to start with, less afterwards. Recalls speeches –e.g. Sky Bolt missile system 1.19.30  at Question Time.  MPs refused to pause the debate to let Black Rod into Chamber. Brian Walden made good speeches.  Michael Foot a good speaker, Aneurin Bevan past his best then. Tory speakers -Iain Macleod v good.  Ted Heath good in early attempts to get into EEC. Macmillan not a great performer.  First impression of Thatcher –able and determined but not outstanding 1.22.45.  Was a supporter of Margaret.   Heath had called him in 1966 to discuss appointing Thatcher to Shadow Cabinet –“statutory woman” for Social Services –he suggested Thatcher. Willie Whitelaw had advised against -“if we get her, and we don’t like her, we’ll never be able to get rid of her”! 1.23.50.  In government as Sec of State for Education she got into trouble over School Milk. Heath helped her –but never liked her –anecdote about his anniversary party.
(interview resumes after lunch)
1.26.00  Issues important to him –Manufacturing Industry (you can’t employ 40 million people on Financial Services); getting exports moving; industrial relations and privatisation. Supporter of National Health Service but wanted some competition in it and less bureaucracy. Role and powers of Backbench members –limited 1.29.30 could work through Backbench committees and have some influence. Most Backbenchers content to go along with things.  A few Private Member’s Bills counted –e.g. Gerald Nabarro’s Private Member’s Bills on Clean Air for London and on Purchase Tax. Most MPs were terrified of getting a PMB.  Speaks about Nabarro –exceptional. (break in recording 1.32.12).
Culture of Parliament  -Parliamentary Committees were v strong in Macmillan’s day. Refers to decolonization under Macleod. Committees were influential then -as protest meetings 1.34.00.   Quotes Lord Blake –“Conservative Party was always sycophantic” – would usually go along with leadership.  People plotted in tea room, although many members never went there; not a hub of activity.  Workload pretty light in early years. All had a locker for papers. Tells story about MP finding piles of unopened correspondence from previous occupant 1.36.55.  Different today.  Then, he shared a secretary with three others.  Secretary was paid £8 per week.  Some MPs got no letters at all.  On important matters, MPs could have influence; on other matters they let government get on with it 1.38.30.  Influences on his career –Ian Gilmour, Robert Carr, Peter Carrington, Quintin Hailsham all close friends.  Rivals were of different political disposition –e.g. Margaret Thatcher was one, Airey Neave was another   1.40.10. Had lots of political enemies on the Right on the Backbenches e.g. during Employment legislation. Talks about Alec Home becoming PM – Right wing had “smelled blood”.  Relationship with Margaret –always slightly difficult and got worse over time –“she was jolly glad when I left” 1.42.10.
Difference when becoming a Minister –“not just part of a talking shop, you’re part of a doing shop –makes you work harder”.   First role in Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries. Quotes Enoch Powell –“never be a Minister in a department where you knew somehting about it” 1.43.45.   Should decide on the facts as presented to you. But in Agriculture and Employment he knew what he wanted to do –and didn’t want to do too much  -resisted pressure from people to do more.
1.45.25 Remained as a practising farmer –not seen then as a conflict of interest e.g. over subsidies he was also drawing.  People more sensitive now.   Role as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland –effects on lifestyle 1.47.15  -security constraints –“they were trying to blow me up”  -not allowed to sleep in N. Ireland for three months.   You are the number one person, allocated a budget to run the Province as you decided –v interesting. Example of World Cup where N Ireland did well –he promised them a new Stand for football ground -could do it without reference to Margaret or Treasury 1.49.35 –one snag caused by the sectarian rules of the footballing organisation.  Thatcher’s visits – visit by road gave her the impression we were spending too much money there.  “We had plenty of money!”  Frustration was the inability to make any movement  -he was in too much of a hurry. Talks about elections where Sinn Fein got a slice of the vote.
Biggest achievement 1.52.15  Cynics would say, enabling Heath to remain in office for four years as PM (as PPS he helped him deal with recalcitrant party). His work as Employment Secretary the most important thing –sensible reform of unions –picketing, secret ballots etc. “reforms which they could take” 1.53.40. Leader of the House –not noticed. Chaired Emergency Committee of Cabinet –lots of them  -“we were always turning the lights out” 1.54.20. Deciding where emergency generators would go in Three Day Weeks period.  Leaving Office after 1974 election –“awful! Sad, unbecoming”. Leaving in 1984 was a relief –left without great bitterness –unlike so many politicians. Happy to leave. Time to try something else. Had joined GEC as chairman. Disappointed he didn’t achieve more 1.57.30. Remembers Dean Acheson anecdote –“I couldn’t have made more than a few percentage points difference”. 
1.58.40  Most misses having influence on things that could be handled better and where he could help.  Influence from Lords doesn’t work e.g. Thatcher’s fall from office –Lords went on with business oblivious to it.  Commons and Government don’t listen much to the Lords 2.00.00. 
Least misses “grind” of keeping constituency happy and doing full time job in government, and the long nights and the triviality of what goes on