Lord Henry Plumb
In 1940, when Henry Plumb was 15 and attending the King Edward VI School at Nuneaton, his father arrived to see the headmaster. Young Henry was called into the head masters study where his father was standing to be told that he would be leaving school to return home to help on the family farm. The 2nd World War had taken all able bodied men to be soldiers and Plumb senior was unable to run the farm alone. Consolingly the head master said “Don’t worry Plumb. This War can’t last more than six months; there will still be a place here for you when it’s over”.Henry didn’t see it in quite the same way. He was delighted to be leaving school to work on the farm where he milked the cows - by hand - sorted potatoes, kept 300 acres in order, and generally became his father’s right hand man. It was hard work but he loved it and it turned out to be an ideal training ground for the varied career that followed. He never did go back to school.He also benefitted from his local Young Farmers Club at Coleshill, Warwickshire, of which he soon became an enthusiastic member, excelling in stock judging, ploughing competitions and, predictably, public speaking. Young Farmers lived up to its reputation as a marriage bureau for him too. He married fellow member, Marjorie, in 1947, a partnership that produced three children and continues to this day.In 1952 when he was 27 Henry’s world fell apart when his father died suddenly at the age of 58. He was on his own and having to deal with the farm, death duties, and the inevitable re-organisation of the business. The National Farmers Union County secretary proved an invaluable confidante through these troubled times and later persuaded Henry to become active in the County Branch, of which his father had been chairman. Truth be told, he agreed to do it more out of loyalty to his late father than love of agricultural politics.But the deeper he became involved in the Union the more this changed. Pretty soon he was representing Warwickshire on the NFU Council, chairing meetings and speaking around the country, often about the big debate of the time – the possibility of Britain joining the EEC. His clear sighted vision for the farming industry was being recognised by his fellow NFU members and in 1964 he was elected as Vice President of the NFU at the age of 38 – the youngest ever office holder of the Union.Three years later he was elected as Deputy President and in 1970 to the top job of President, a position he held for nine years. His election coincided with an increase in public hostility towards farmers because of the price guarantees awarded each February in government Farm Price Reviews that were perceived as too generous. Stanley Evans MP had a few years previously coined the phrase “Feather Bedded Farmers” and it was a gift to the popular press. Governments had responded by reducing those prices and some sectors of agriculture were suffering.Henry decided it was time to put the record straight and on Feb 2nd 1970 led a march of farmers across London to Whitehall. Farmers loved him for it; government hated it. But it added to his credibility as the farmer’s champion, a reputation he retains. And he was still awarded a Knighthood by the Queen three years later.He decided it was time to give up the NFU Presidency in 1979 and he tells the probably apocryphal story that when he told his son, John, who was running the farm by this time, John asked “What are you going to do now?” Henry replied that he was happy to leave John to run the farm but would come back to help. “So what would you like me to do?” Henry asked. John replied “Well, you can start by brushing the yard”. It was at that point that Henry decided to stand for the European Parliament – or so he says.In fact he was elected an MEP for the Cotswolds in 1979 and continued to represent the constituency until 1999. Almost immediately after his election he was appointed Chairman of the European Parliaments Committee on Agriculture. There followed a catalogue of chairmanships and presidencies of various European Parliamentary bodies culminating in the Presidency of the European Parliament itself from 1987 to 1989. It was also in 1987 that he was created Baron of Coleshill in the County of Warwickshire and he remains an active member of the House of Lords.Paradoxically perhaps for a boy who left school at fifteen he has been awarded more honorary doctorates and fellowships of academic organisations than there is space to mention – many of them by countries where his agricultural and political expertise has been recognised and valued. He has also given unstintingly of his time to lead charitable bodies in Britain and abroad whose objectives have varied from a range of agricultural interests (NSA, IFAP), through rural youth (YFC’s, RAC), rural stress (RABI), the RASE, and many more.Of particular note on the world stage has been the International Food and Agricultural Trade Policy Council, better known as IPC, which, with help from the Rockefeller Foundation, he founded. His objective, against the background at the time of the Uruguay Round, was to promote international trade in agricultural commodities that was more open, equitable and sustainable than previously. He chaired the organisation from its formation in 1987 until 2001 and remains its chief inspiration. He has, over those years brought together opinion formers and decision makers from around the world with a view to building consensus on matters such as global food security, increasing productivity and economic growth and development.Through it all he has maintained the image and demeanour of an English Yeoman Farmer – the title of a book written by some of his many friends as a tribute to him – and is still affectionately regarded by his farming peers as “Our Henry”. And now, in his senior years, he is keen to leave a legacy to the industry in which he started and which he loves so much; a legacy that might start other young people along the kind of path he has trod with such distinction for so long; a legacy that will proudly bear his name for many years to come.