Prior, James Michael Leathes (‘Jim’) (1927–2016), British Conservative politician, secretary of state for Northern Ireland and businessman, was born in Norwich on 11 October 1927, youngest of four children (two sons and two daughters) of Charles Prior, solicitor, and his wife Aileen (née Gillman). He was educated at Aldeburgh Preparatory School and Charterhouse School, Surrey, where during the second world war he organised a pig-rearing club to supplement rations. Prior decided to pursue a career in farming and later developed an interest in politics. After national service with the Royal Norfolk Regiment in India and Germany (1946–8) he studied estate management at Pembroke College, Cambridge (1948–50). Prior became a land agent, subsequently establishing his own firm; having secured the Conservative parliamentary candidacy for the Labour-held seat of Lowestoft, Suffolk, he bought a 360-acre farm at nearby Brampton after failing to win the seat at the 1955 general election. Prior unexpectedly took Lowestoft at the 1959 general election; although the seat was marginal at subsequent elections, Prior retained it until its abolition through boundary revision in 1983 and held the successor constituency of Waveney from 1983 to 1987.
In his maiden speech Prior declared that he would not support any party that pursued a ‘policy of unemployment’ (Hansard, 9 Nov. 1959). He was elected chair of the party’s agricultural committee in 1960 and became parliamentary private secretary (PPS) to the president of the Board of Trade and the minister for energy in 1963. After the Conservatives lost the 1964 general election, Prior became a party vice-chairman with responsibility for the candidates’ list and, in 1965, PPS to the newly elected Conservative leader, Edward Heath. Situated within the socially liberal wing of the party, Prior strongly supported Britain’s application for membership of the European Economic Community.
After Heath led the Conservatives to victory in 1970, Prior became minister for agriculture (20 June 1970). In November 1972 he became leader of the house of commons (in charge of parliamentary business) and lord president of the council. Prior was both impressed and dismayed by widespread union resistance to the Heath government’s attempts to regulate industries by legislation, and by successful strikes by workers in key industries (notably coalmining) opposing government attempts to limit wage increases. Heath’s defeat at the February 1974 general election encouraged the belief that Britain could not be governed in opposition to the unions. As opposition spokesperson on employment and industrial relations (1974–9), Prior cultivated contacts with union leaders with the assistance of a protégé, Richard Needham.
Prior supported Heath’s leadership against the right-wing, insurgent challenger Margaret Thatcher in February 1975, but failed to vote on the first ballot because of a speaking engagement outside London. After Heath’s withdrawal, Prior was a candidate in the second round (allegedly lured into the contest by Thatcher supporters wishing to divert support from Heath’s deputy, William Whitelaw (qv)). He received nineteen votes to Whitelaw’s seventy-nine and Thatcher’s 146 (there were two other candidates).
Though Thatcher retained Prior as spokesperson on employment, they developed an intense mutual dislike and their relations were punctuated by shouting matches. Prior saw Thatcher’s monetarist associates as simplistic doctrinaires lacking hands-on business experience, while Thatcher and her allies despised Prior as a ‘false squire’ – advocating capitulation under pretence of paternalism – and an appeaser of militant trade unionists. Prior was criticised by right-wingers for his conciliatory approach to the 1976–8 picketing of the Grunwick photographic plant, which dismissed workers seeking trade union representation.
Prior’s brand of ‘wet’ Conservatism was influenced by his mother’s Christian commitment to voluntary charitable work and memories of accompanying his father to evictions of bankrupt farmers in the 1930s. After the Conservative victory at the 1979 general election, Prior was appointed secretary of state for employment (5 May 1979–September 1981) – the only ‘wet’ with a major economic cabinet position. The strike wave known as the ‘winter of discontent’ during the last months of the outgoing Labour government convinced Prior that statutory regulation of trade disputes was necessary, and he oversaw legislation which restricted secondary picketing, mandated strike ballots and limited the ‘closed shop’ (union membership as a condition of employment).
Widely viewed as the strongest ‘wet’ rival to Thatcher, Prior and two other ‘wet’ ministers, Ian Gilmour and Peter Walker, considered but ultimately rejected resigning in protest at Geoffrey Howe’s stringent budget of March 1981; Prior later regretted this decision. In September 1981 Thatcher reasserted control of her cabinet by purging discontented ministers. Forewarned that he was to be sent to Northern Ireland, Prior intimated through a variety of public and parliamentary channels that he would not accept this move and might resign unless given another economic ministry. Thatcher called his bluff, however, and Prior feared being branded a coward if he refused. He made several conditions for acceptance, including membership of key cabinet committees dealing with the economy. (Thatcher subsequently downgraded the committees and made decisions in small private gatherings.) Prior assumed the post of Northern Ireland secretary on 14 September 1981 and received a free hand with Northern Ireland policy, including authorisation to make the concessions necessary to bring the 1981 hunger strike to an end. He was allowed to choose his own junior ministerial team and recruited ‘wets’ Nicholas Scott (1933–2005) and Lord ‘Grey’ Gowrie (1939–2021), who were joined after 1983 by Chris Patten and by Richard Needham (as Prior’s PPS). Despite these concessions Prior’s appointment was a humiliation for him and Northern Ireland: ‘I think it is a pity that Northern Ireland is always regarded as if it were a dustbin. I went there because Mrs Thatcher was fed up with me at home’ (Belfast Telegraph, 3 Sept. 1985).
Prior tried to counter the impression, created by the circumstances of his appointment, that he was a reluctant, know-nothing colonial overlord. He cultivated local media who found him congenial and enjoyed his frequent verbal indiscretions. Shortly after his arrival Prior visited the Maze prison, where he was impressed by the hunger-strikers’ determination; he consulted catholic church representatives (including Fr Denis Faul (qv)) and, on 6 October, three days after the strike ended, made concessions which granted most of the protestors’ demands. These allowed the prisoners to determine the internal working of the prison to a considerable extent, and when Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoners staged a break-out in September 1983 some commentators blamed Prior and accused him of scapegoating the prison governor, who resigned after an inquiry.
Another awkward inheritance was the DeLorean car factory in Dunmurry, on the outskirts of west Belfast. Prior was suspicious of John DeLorean’s repeated demands for more government money, but agreed to additional loan guarantees of £10 million after receiving an exaggerated account of car sales. Relations with DeLorean deteriorated, particularly when DeLorean mentioned the British-owned General Electric Company (GEC) to Prior as a possible backer; Prior knew GEC’s chief executive, Arnold Weinstock, whose strategy of amassing large cash reserves to sustain dividends was incompatible with such a risky investment. Weinstock told Prior he had never met DeLorean. Prior forced the company into receivership and oversaw unsuccessful attempts at restructuring and attracting new investors. Initial attempts to deal with the Harland & Wolff shipyard, with the aim of restoring it to profitability for privatisation, were more successful. In 1982 Prior recruited the Ulster native John Parker as chief executive, from British Shipbuilders. Over the next eleven years Parker reduced the shipyard workforce from 7,000 to 2,000 and briefly restored the company to profitability; it nevertheless continued to struggle and was eventually reduced to a repair facility.
In November 1982, the Ulster Unionist MP Robert Bradford (qv) was murdered by the IRA; Ian Paisley (qv) and other unionists accused the government of neglecting security, with Paisley launching a short-lived paramilitary ‘Third Force’ at a series of demonstrations. Prior attended Bradford’s funeral in Dundonald at the family’s invitation; he was attacked by loyalist demonstrators, shouting ‘Kill him’, subjected to a fiery sermon, and besieged in the church after the service. In private Prior voiced alarmist predictions that if moderate politicians were not supported, the IRA might establish a Marxist dictatorship, turning Ireland into a ‘Cuba’ off the British coast. (Prior abandoned earlier secretaries’ practice of travelling by helicopter because of reports that the IRA had acquired surface to air missiles.)
Prior greatly respected Garret FitzGerald (qv) and was embarrassed when, during the November 1982 general election in the Republic, one of his statements about possible joint policing was seized on by Charles Haughey (qv), who claimed that FitzGerald had contacts with British Intelligence and that the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) might soon be policing Kerry.
In early 1982 Prior revived and redeveloped proposals for an all-party constitutional conference, first aired by his predecessor, Humphrey Atkins (qv), as part of efforts to restore devolved powers to Northern Ireland (direct rule from London having been implemented in March 1972). During discrete discussions with the parties, Prior offered short-term financial concessions which he had secured from Westminster as bait. An initial scheme for an elected assembly, featuring a nominated executive of local politicians, with the Northern Ireland secretary in a quasi-presidential role and a degree of involvement for the Irish Republic as guarantor for nationalists, was abandoned because of opposition from Thatcher and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), thus antagonising the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). Prior then advanced the idea of ‘rolling devolution’, beginning with the election of a devolved, purely consultative assembly, without an executive but possessing a committee system designed to build mutual trust across the parties – reflecting his preferred method of working with trades unions.
Prior’s attempts to restore devolution encountered difficulties from the start. Publication of his proposals in April 1982 (as Northern Ireland: a framework for devolution) coincided with the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands. Those most enthusiastic for the initiative were the centrist Alliance Party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP, who wanted to play down their extremist reputation) and Gerry Fitt (qv), who had left the SDLP in 1980 over his devolutionist views. The SDLP were constrained by the electoral rise of Sinn Féin and viewed the scheme as excessively favourable to unionists; the party contested the election (held on 20 October 1982) and won fourteen seats, but boycotted the assembly. Sinn Féin won five seats and just over ten per cent of the first preference votes, leading to complaints that Prior had given them an unnecessary opportunity to show their electoral muscle.
The UUP was divided over the scheme, with James Molyneaux (qv) complaining that the SDLP were ‘given the right of veto’ by the government’s refusal to penalise them for their absence (Irish Independent, 10 May 1989). He privately described the assembly as ‘a toothless bribery machine’ intended to pave the way for a united Ireland, and the party intermittently boycotted its sessions (Belfast Newsletter, 29 Aug. 2014). The passage of the assembly’s legislation was marked by filibusters from unionist MPs, supported by right-wing Conservative rebels. Prior blamed this on the influence of Enoch Powell and backstairs encouragement provided by Thatcher’s PPS, Ian Gow. Prior saw Gow’s pro-unionist advice as a disastrous influence on Thatcher, and believed Gow’s obstructionism had her approval; in cabinet she expressed contempt for the initiative, while Prior saw her unionist sympathies as based on ignorance of Northern Ireland (particularly the extent of nationalist grievances). Thatcher was also motivated by unwillingness to allow Prior a political triumph. Although the assembly performed some useful scrutiny of the Northern Ireland administration, it was widely regarded as a talking shop, marked by political grandstanding. It survived Prior’s departure but was dissolved in June 1986, shortly after the conclusion of the November 1985 Anglo–Irish Agreement.
Devolution aside, Prior oversaw several policy successes, including the first ever official funding for Irish-language schools and extensive public housing schemes intended not only to renew the housing stock but to provide local employment. After seeing some of the results while on a visit to Northern Ireland, Thatcher complained to Prior that ‘we are spending too much money here’ (Belfast Telegraph, 10 July 1997) – his successor as secretary of state, Tom King, praised Prior’s housing investment, which increased home ownership from less than half in 1981 to two-thirds by the middle of the decade. Prior also implemented the Youth Training Scheme in Northern Ireland a year before its introduction in Britain.
The Conservative landslide at the 1983 general election decreased Prior’s leverage on Thatcher, and when he told her privately that he would serve no more than three years in Northern Ireland she made it clear he could not expect a major economic portfolio. Prior subsequently accepted an offer from Weinstock to become chairman of GEC. His political authority slipped away after he told a Norfolk local radio station in March 1984 that he would soon be leaving Northern Ireland, and his last months in office were overshadowed by controversies over incidents where alleged republican paramilitaries were killed by specialist police marksmen (prompting rumours of a ‘shoot to kill’ policy and the establishment of the Stalker-Sampson inquiry) and over the RUC attempt to arrest the American republican fundraiser Martin Galvin at a rally in Belfast in August 1984, leading to the lethal shooting of a rioter at close range. In post-retirement interviews Prior claimed aspects of Northern Ireland’s security policy were handled from London without his involvement. He was disappointed with the final report of the New Ireland Forum (partly because he had access to earlier drafts, watered down to secure Haughey’s acquiescence), but in his last months as Northern Ireland secretary he embarked on a new initiative aimed at meeting nationalist grievances by incorporating an Irish dimension. (Suggestions by Grey Gowrie, in informal conversations, that this might extend to Dublin and Westminster exercising joint authority over Northern Ireland were eventually repudiated by Prior.) Although this initiative was seen as a lame duck exercise at the time, it was later recognised as a preliminary to the 1985 Anglo–Irish Agreement. Prior spoke in favour of the Agreement in parliament, and after leaving office had private conversations with Irish diplomats in which he was scathing about unionist politicians and Thatcher. In his memoirs he criticised unionists for failing to realise that sovereignty was no longer an absolute, and that the European Community proved that a state could strengthen its sovereignty by pooling it. In October 1992 an IRA bomb exploded at his London flat; he welcomed the subsequent peace process. In a characteristic indiscretion, he remarked in a 2014 television interview that IRA violence had worked.
AFTER NORTHERN IRELAND
Weary of politics and anxious to begin again in business, Prior stood down as Northern Ireland secretary and resigned from the cabinet on 27 September 1984, to take up his post with GEC. His chairmanship involved using his contacts to act as salesman; he attracted some criticism for apparent conflicts of interest given GEC’s heavy reliance on British governmental contracts (notably his vigorous but unsuccessful 1986 campaign to persuade the government to buy GEC’s fault-ridden Nimrod air defence system rather than its US rival, AWACS). GEC cutbacks in Northern Ireland, and an attempt by GEC to take over the Belfast-based Shorts Aerospace, also produced local criticism. He remained as GEC chairman until 1998, and was criticised in hindsight for failing to modify either Weinstock’s (retired 1996) fiscal conservatism or a subsequent chief executive’s post-1996 dissipation of Weinstock’s reserves on disastrous ‘dot-com’ investments. Prior chaired several other companies and held numerous directorships, as well as working with public service organisations.
Prior’s 1986 memoir A balance of power (a third of which covers Northern Ireland) appealed for the Conservative Party to move away from Thatcherism towards the centre ground. Critics complained that Prior wanted the same results as Thatcher without acknowledging the means required. After his retirement from parliament in 1987 he was created a life peer, as Baron Prior of Brampton.
On 30 January 1954 Prior married Jane Lywood; they had three sons (Jeremy, David and Simon) and a daughter (Jane). James Prior died of prostate cancer at his home in Brampton on 12 December 2016. His amiable, bucolic exterior tended to overshadow his administrative abilities, and the humiliating circumstances of his appointment, followed by the failure of his assembly, have dominated his image in Northern Ireland. Prior was a competent and committed Northern Ireland secretary under almost impossible circumstances, but even friends such as Richard Needham (whom he recruited to the GEC board in 1995) thought his defeats reflected personal limitations as well as circumstances (Needham, 262). Thatcher’s official biographer, Charles Moore, remarked that Prior opposed her ideas on principle. Prior himself recalled: ‘I was out-manoeuvred by the prime minister; that is probably why she was prime minister and I was certainly never likely to be’ (Prior, 173).