Mourning Jim Prior. Mourning Empathy.
Yesterday Jim Prior died. A veteran Conservative and Unionist Party politician, his party was not my party and his values were not my values. I would have disagreed with him on a great many issues.
Which is why I miss him.
He was a patrician sort of character, who was fictionalised as such by James Raven. He was also an old-fashioned “One Nation” Tory of a kind that has not existed in any functional capacity for a great many years (David Cameron’s rhetorical appropriation of this label was utterly contradicted by both his actions and inactions). Jim Prior believed that rich people have a duty of care towards poor people and that wealth and privilege entailed certain responsibilities to others. There is nothing very egalitarian about such beliefs and he was not particularly concerned to broaden the social basis of governance. But he took an interest in people who were very different from himself. He listened to them and even tried to learn from them.
He was, needless to say, one of Thatcher’s most significant antagonists within her own party. He was not “one of us”. Indeed, the difference between Thatcher and Prior illustrates the very narrow limits of charitable sentiment that Thatcher and Thatcherism was prepared to entertain. When those close to Thatcher speak of her generosity and concern for her friends and supporters, they neglect the fact that loyalty to those who already support you and your cause is nothing more than a version of self-reinforcement. If you can only love those who are unequivocally “one of us” – then those “others” that you love aren’t really “others” at all – but a mere reflection of yourself. Now from my earliest years in Sunday School, I was taught that there’s a higher form of compassion and sympathy, a compassion and sympathy that can extend to those who are unlike you and who oppose you. The whole loving your enemies thing, if you can believe it.
Jim Prior got on well with trade union leaders. When they spoke, he listened, and tried to comprehend how they saw the world and why they saw it as they did. It was unsurprising, therefore, that Prior found himself despatched to Northern Ireland after a few years. It is chastening to remind ourselves that before Mo Mowlam, the office of Northern Irish Secretary was appointed not on the basis of fitness for the post, not because such and such a minister appeared to offer the skills set and experience required to govern six counties in the north east corner of Ireland, but as a punishment. People were sent to Northern Ireland because the prime minister disliked them, and wanted them to suffer.
Yet Prior’s arrival in Northern Ireland evidences a remarkable and perhaps inspiring paradox. The very reason why Prior was sent there – as a punishment for his consensual ability to listen to others – proved critical to the ending of the hunger strikes. Prior’s predecessor, Humphrey Atkins, was determined that no concessions could be made and that the hunger strikers must be “defeated” unambiguously. Prior, on the other hand, very quickly concluded that the language of victory and defeat was futile in this situation. As a wealthy and privileged member of a Conservative and Unionist party, he had nothing whatsoever in common with people who had made a military-political decision to starve themselves so as to secure political recognition for armed Irish republicanism. Yet he entered into consultations (critically with Fr. Denis Faul) that evidenced a desire to understand how such decisions can be made, and did so because he was personally troubled by human suffering. He wanted it to stop. He was a human being.
This is not to offer any particular commentary on the wisdom or justice of Prior’s tenure in Northern Ireland. It is only a small but crucial illustration of Prior’s continuing desire to learn from other people and to find ways in which profoundly estranged people can somehow negotiate.
Perhaps, the fact that I’m writing a book about another diplomat called Prior, makes me think a bit more seriously about this issue.
I never met Jim Prior (any more than I met Matthew Prior), and I don’t know if I would have ‘liked’ him if I had. But I do know that I could have spoken to him. I know that he would have done me the favour of listening to me if I had anything important I wanted to say, and I would certainly have extended to him the same courtesy.
In short, he was a politician who was also a civilised human being. These days, such people are to be sincerely mourned.