British Conservative Politician
Born 1922 Died 2008

Francis Pym was the Member for Parliament for Cambridgeshire from 1961 until 1983, and then for Cambridgeshire South East until 1987, after which he sat in the House of Lords as the Baron Pym. He served under Edward Heath as Chief Whip and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and under Margaret Thatcher as both Secretary of State for Defence and Foreign Secretary during the Falklands War, despite being regarded as one of the more prominent 'Wets'.

Early Life and Career

Francis Leslie Pym was born on the 13th February 1922 into what The Times described as a "Bedfordshire landed family", although he was actually born at Penpergwn Lodge near Abergavenny in Monmouthshire, the son of Leslie Ruthven Pym and Iris Rosalind Orde. His father Leslie was the Conservative MP for Monmouth from 1939 until his death in 1945 and himself the son of the Right Reverend Walter Pym, the Bishop of Bombay, and from the same family as had earlier produced the seventeenth century parliamentarian John Pym whose attempted impeachment by Charles I helped start the English Civil War.

Francis was educated at Eton College and Magdalene College, Cambridge, however his university education was interrupted by the advent of World War II, and he was commissioned into the 9th Lancers in 1942 and sent to join his regiment in North Africa where he took part in the battle of El Alamein. Appointed an adjutant just before the fall of Tunis in March 1943, he landed in Italy in September where he spent the rest of war. He was twice mentioned in dispatches, and thanks to his efforts in sustaining the momentum of his regiment during its rapid advance between the Santerno and the Po in April 1945 was later awarded the Military Cross.

After demobilisation in 1946 he returned to Cambridge to complete his degree and to manage his family's Bedfordshire estates. In 1947 he joined Lewis's, the department store run by the Lord Woolton and in 1948 he became the general manager of their subsidiary Merseyside Diaries. He remained there until 1953 when he utilised part of his inheritance to acquire George Holloway and Webb Ltd, a near-bankrupt firm of tentmakers. As managing director he successfully ran the business for the next eight years, and indeed was later described as "the most successful tent-maker since Saul of Tarsus".

Political career

Pym was in many ways born into the Conservative Party, and it was therefore no surprise that he sought a career in politics, and was first a member of Herefordshire County Council between 1958 and 1961. In his search for a Commons seat, he first stood as the Conservative candiate for Rhondda West at the General Election of 1959, naturally a hopless cause for a Tory as he came third behind Labour and Plaid Cymru and lost his deposit. His chance came when Gerald Howard, the sitting member for Cambridgeshire, decided to stand down in order to become a high court judge. With his war record and succesful business career Francis was clearly the kind of material that Conservative MPs were made of, and having been selected as the Conservative PPC for the constituency he was duly returned at the by-election held on the 16th March 1961.

Within a year of his election was appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary to Reginald Maudling, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, and was soon afterwards appointed an Assistant Government Whip in 1962, a position he retained until the Conservatives defeat in 1964. Thereafter he continued to serve in the Whips Office throughout the years of opposition, being an Opposition Whip in 1964, and then promoted to the post of Opposition Deputy Chief Whip in 1967. When Edward Heath became Prime Minister following victory in the 1970 General Election he appointed Francis as the Government Chief Whip on the 20th June 1970. As such Francis took a leading role in ensuring that Heath's great project of securing British membership of the Common Market won the necessary support of the House of Commons. He helped persuade Heath to allow a free vote on the principle of entry, which was duly carried on the 28th October 1971, and was afterwards active in marshalling support for the European Communities Bill, a task which largely involved encouraging the support of Labour rebels to counteract the defection of those on the Concservative ranks who disapproved of the measure. It was thanks in great part to Francis's efforts that the bill was duly passed in June 1972 albeit by the slender margin of 301 to 284.

He was subsequently appointed, apparently "very much against his will", as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on the 2nd December 1973, although as it turned out his time there was brief, given the government's defeat in the General Election of February 1974. (Francis was apparently one of those who argued against going to the country at this time.) However although Francis was only at Northern Ireland for a couple of months, this was sufficient time for him to sign an internment order on one of the leaders of the IRA and to receive the customary death sentence in return.

Forced into opposition in March 1974 he remained the opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland and agriculture for another three months, when he relinquished the former in June 1974, after which agriculture became his sole responsibility. When Margaret Thatcher succeeded Heath as leader he retained the agriculture brief despite the fact that he had voted for Heath. Indeed Francis's later ability to work with Mrs Thatcher, was a cause of a great deal of annoyance to Heath who retaliated (at least in private) by mispronouncing Pym's name as 'Pime'. (Yes, he really was that childish.) Francis was however soon forced to stand down from the Shadow Cabinet in April 1975 on medical advice, as a result of a hernia operation, although others have suggested the cause was depression. In any event, after a few months recuperation he rejoined the Shadow Cabinet in January 1976 being made Shadow Leader of the House and the party spokesman on devolution.

There he remained until illness forced John Davies to stand down from the Shadow Cabinet and retire from politics shortly after the 1978 Conservative Party conference, and Pym was drafted in as his replacement as shadow Foreign Secretary. As it turned out this was not an entirely satisfactory from Pym's point of view, since it was widely and accurately believed that Thatcher would appoint the Baron Carrington as Foreign Secretary if and when she formed a government.

Government Career

When the Conservatives duly won the General Election of May 1979, the new Prime Minister did indeed appoint the Lord Cariington as Foreign Secretary, and Francis therefore found himself appointed as the Secretary of State for Defence. At the Ministry of Defence he was responsible for revamping the Territorial Army and for dealing with the vexed question of the siting of cruise missiles. He was also active in resisting the pressure from the Treasury to deliver cuts in the defence budget, and at one point in 1980 he threatened to resign, and together with his Permanent Secretary, Frank Cooper, and the chiefs of staff, insisted on a personal meeting with Thatcher which saw off the Treasury's demands.

Whilst in the short term Francis won that battle, it led to the view that he had 'gone native', and in Thatcher's first Cabinet reshuffle of January 1981 he was moved from Defence and took over from John Biffen as Leader of the House of Commons and Lord President of the Council on the 5th January 1981, being also appointed to the offices of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Paymaster-General. Whilst this might have been seen as a demotion, he at least managed to survive in the Cabinet at a time when many other so-called Wets found themselves cast out of the government.

Although Francis was later obliged to relinquish the offices of Paymaster-General and Chancellor on the 14th September 1981, opportunity came knocking in the following year when the Foreign Secretary Peter Carrington, felt obliged to resign after the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands, and Francis as appointed as his replacement on the 6th April 1982. Francis therefore acted as Foreign Secretary throughout the course of the Falklands War, although as Bernard Ingham was later to put it he "was always much more inclined to reach a settlement rather than on winning the war". In fact when Francis was dispatched to Washington in April 1982 for talks with the American Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, he returned with a set of draft proposals that were designed to avoid any further conflict. Unfortunately, Thatcher would have none of this, and as she later revealed in her memoirs, she regarded the document as "conditional surrender" that would "rob the Falklanders of their freedom and Britain of her honour and respect".

Thatcher nevertheless tolerated Francis for the simple reason that the function of his "intensive shuttle diplomacy" was to deliver the necessary time and diplomatic space to permit the Task Force to reach the South Atlantic and recover the islands. She did however employ Anthony Parsons as her own foreign policy adviser, and it was widely rumoured at Westminster that Pym's demise was therefore imminent. It has to be said that Francis did little to help his cause, as during the campaign leading up to the General Election of the 10th June 1983, he was asked about the prospect of another Conservative landslide victory and remarked that "Landslides don't on the whole produce successful governments". Margaret Thatcher begged to differ (as no doubt would have Messrs Attlee and Blair) and matters weren't improved when they both appeared together at a press conference and were asked about the possibility of negotiating with the Argentinians about the future of the now recaptured islands. Francis gave a diplomatic reply that admitted the possibility of such an eventuality, only to be flatly contradicted by Thatcher who insisted that islands' sovereignty was not up for negotiation.

It was no doubt inevitable that Francis was summoned into Thatcher's presence on the day after the election, and bluntly informed, "Francis, I want a new Foreign Secretary".

After Government

Although Thatcher had suggested to Francis that he run for the vacant office of Speaker of the House of Commons, he had no interest in that post, and retired to the bankbenches. He took the opportunity to write The Politics of Consent (1984), in which he set out his own particular brand of Conservatism and called on the Government to "serve all the people of the country, not only those who stand on their own two feet but also those who cannot". In the following year he set up a new parliamentary pressure group called Conservative Centre Forward together with around another thirty or so like-minded backbenchers. However although the intention was to argue in favour of more centrist policies in the 'One Nation' tradition, it was also Francis's intention that the group should function as a constructive and loyal opposition, and the group was often entirely supportive of the government's policies. Indeed the objection appeared to be, not so much to the content of Thatcherism, as to the unsympathetic and unattractive tone the government often adopted in pursuing such policies.

In any event the Conservative Centre Forward group slid into obscurity and disappeared from view when Francis announced his intention to stand down from the Commons during the summer of 1986. He stood down at the 1987 election and was created a life peer as the Baron Pym, of Sandy in the County of Bedfordshire. He then returned to his business career and was the chairman of Diamond Cable Communications (1995-1999) and of Christie Brockbank Shipton (1994-1999), whilst he served on such public bodies as the British Executive Service Overseas (1988–1998), The Landscape Foundation (1993–98), and was also vice-president of the Registered Engineers for Disaster Relief (1986–1998). Francis also wrote an outline of the Pym family history which was published under the title of Sentimental Journey in 1998. He later died at home just after midnight on the 7th March 2008 after a prolonged illness.

Francis Pym married, in 1949, Valerie Fortune Daglish; they had two sons and two daughters.

  • Lord Pym: The Times obituary,The Times March 8, 2008
  • John F. Burns, Lord Francis Pym, Ex-Foreign Secretary of Britain, Dies at 86, New York Times, March 8, 2008
  • Lord Pym: Leading 'wet' in Thatcher's first cabinet who became Foreign Secretary during the Falklands War, The Independent, 8 March 2008
  • Obituary: Lord Pym, Daily Telegraph, 08/03/2008
  • Obituary: Lord Pym, The Herald, March 8, 2008.
  • Jane Merrick, Francis Pym, doyen of the Tory wets, dies aged 86, Daily Mail, 7th March 2008
  • Obituary: Lord Pym, Yorshire Post, 07 March 2008
  • Sue Cameron, Obituary: Patrician Tory devoted to serving the public, Financial Times Mar 7 2008
  • Andy McSmith, Lord Pym: Leading 'wet' in Thatcher's first cabinet, The Independent, 8 March 2008
  • ‘PYM’, Who's Who 2008, A & C Black, 2008; online edn, Oxford University Press, Dec 2007

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