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A Balance of Power Hardcover – 6 Oct 1986

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Jim Prior was at the heart of British and Conservative politics for twenty years. This is his story of those times. Fascinating.

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A Gentlemanly Biography by One of Thatcher's `wets' 3 Aug. 2008
By Hugh Claffey - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Jim Prior looks like an Eighteenth Century Lord, you can imagine him with a long wig, cheeks bluffed by hunting and other outdoors pursuits. In fact he was from a more modest agricultural backround, and became a member of the British cabinets of Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher.
He was more comfortable with Economic ministries and Heath;s overall policies, and rather unfortunately became associated with what was seen as Heath's failures in the face of recession and union agitation in the early 1970s. This led Thatcher's supporters to term him a `wet' i.e. not a hardline monetarist.
He was nonetheless a sufficiently influential within the Tory party to be included in Thatchers cabinets until his retirement from politics. His first stint saw him responsible for the legislation by which trade-unions were regulated. Paradoxically this is still seen as Thatcher's major domestic success, though Prior is scathing (in a refined way) at the seismic damage to British Manufacturing industry caused by the dogmatic application of monetarist theory in the early years of Thatcher's rule.
One major realisation which I came away with is just how lucky Mrs Thatcher was to be re-elected in 1983 - the combination of the Falklands war, the baleful fragmentation of the Labour Party and the lack of a credible alternate Tory leader helped.
As Thatcher became more powerful, she sought to isolate Prior who was relegated to cabinet responsibility for Northern Ireland, then seen as the ultimate hardship position.
This is the reason I read the book.
Prior came to Northern Ireland in the aftermath of the 1981 Hunger strike, at a time when the society was at its most divided and hopeless. He was viewed as a figure who would have some clout and independence from Thatcher, in contract to his predecessor who was completely hopeless. Indeed Prior tried to develop the economy - though he did pull the plug on John DeLoren's car making venture in Belfast - however his major initiative was to try to implement `rolling devolution' in Northern Ireland. The local parliament had been abolished by Heath in 1970, and Prior wished to challenge the local politicians to exercise some responsibility, by giving them back increasing amounts of power; initially they were to review legislation in a super-committee type system, more power would devolve if this worked.
Its hard to explain just how inappropriate this policy was, even at the time it was seen as hopelessly lame. The Hunger Strike had politicized Sinn Fein, who were challenging the SDLP for the Nationalist vote. Sinn Fein would have nothing to do with Prior's rolling devolution, and the SDLP boycotted his plan, for fear of being labelled traitors. In the zero-sum game that was Northern Ireland politics, the unionists welcomed Priors plan. It is now added to the list of failed political initiatives. Typically, his analysis of the politics of the Nationalist/Republican position is off-beam - he espouses the view that Sinn Fein were Marxists for example, his analysis of the parties in the Irish Republic was not much better.
Overall I found this book quite revealing and a little depressing. Prior is obviously a gentleman, he underplays the personal spite that he encountered in his opposition to Thatcher's policies. But his career was marked by being the wrong man for his times - typically a decade too late for the policies he favoured.
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