LORD PLUMB OF COLESHILL
When Henry Plumb stands
up to open a national RABI
conference next week,
chances are there wont be
a single person present
who doesnt recognise
him. Tim Relf finds out
why, in the second of
our series profiling key men
and women in agriculture
YOU cant help but admire the energy of the man. He was in the House of Lords until 2am and then, just three hours later, left London to travel home.
Now, back on his Warwickshire farm with his wife Marjorie, hes catching up with the post before visiting a dispersal sale in the hope of picking up some cattle.
Its typical of the way Henry Plumbs lived – a life farming in tandem with high-profile public roles, among them spells leading the NFU and the European Parliament.
Hes 77 now – but theres little chance of him putting his feet up. "I dont see myself as ever retiring," he says. "Im just not made that way.
"I believe that you stay healthier if you keep active. The important area of the body to keep active is the brain and I survive better when the adrenaline is flowing than when I do sit down and relax."
It was the Animal Health Bill that kept the Tory life baron in the House of Lords until the early hours on this occasion. "I do enjoy the Lords. I think its a very important House."
Its strength, he believes, is in its make-up of people with experience. "Theyve been there, done it.
"They might be trade union leaders, people whove been in business and commerce, academics or," says Henry smiling, "old peasants like me!"
Its also more "open" than the Commons, he maintains. "You can freely express your own opinion without thinking youll be knee-capped by the Whip if you say the wrong thing."
Though he adds: "A Whip might give you a quiet reprimand if youre not behaving as hed like!"
Its one of Henry Plumbs standing jokes that the reason he went into European politics was to avoid sweeping the yard.
It was the late 1970s, hed announced he was standing down as president of the NFU and, back on the family farm at Coleshill planning the future, said to his son: "Youre the boss – what do you want me to do?" The answer was: "Youre always complaining that the yards untidy, so you can start by sweeping that."
And it was then, laughs Henry, that he decided to go into the European Parliament.
He remained an MEP until 1999, holding a host of jobs including its presidency from 1987-1989.
His involvement also took him to Rwanda and Zaire at a time of conflict, after the massacres there of an estimated million people. It was a "harrowing" trip "with the smell of dead bodies a constant reminder of the immediate past".
Visiting an International Red Cross camp in Rwanda run by a small team of Irish nuns was, Henry recalls, "the most moving experience of my life.
"I remember coming back and the first question I was asked was: Is it as bad as weve seen on the television? For the first time in my life, I said: Its worse."
Henry Plumb describes his politics as "very much middle of the road", but hes always been staunchly pro-Europe, advocating Britains place at its heart.
"I can be as critical of many aspects of Europe as any living soul – Ive been there, seen it, Ive done it, Ive seen where the faults are – but what does sadden me is we continually appear to be running behind the train instead of getting up in the engine room and trying to drive it."
His involvement in European politics also brought him into contact with world leaders. Some, such as the Pope and ex-US president Ronald Reagan, he warmed to. Others, such as Yasser Arafat – who he told Get out of violence and get into negotiations – made him uncomfortable. "I saw the steely look in his eye. He, as much as anyone, made me prickle."
When asked exactly what characteristics the father-of-three and grandfather-of-eight does warm to, Henry cites a sense of humour, straight talking and an informed view.
"I used to hate salesmen who used to come round trying to sell something and hadnt got a clue what they were talking about – and you could prove that in about 30 seconds.
"I cant bear a lot of people who are hypocritical – if you havent got the guts to get up and say what you think – well, shut up."
Lord Plumb reckons he learnt a lot thats proved useful in his career at Young Farmers. He remembers stock judging – one of his favourite pursuits – and, having picked his winner and given his reasons, was asked by the judge: Tell me honestly, young man, why did you put that Hereford cow first?
"I looked him straight in the eye and said: Because I know youre a Hereford breeder, sir!"
But politics wasnt all, it seems, that the young Charles Henry Plumb learnt in the Young Farmers. He joined as a 10-year-old, later becoming the first chairman of Coleshill Club and is convinced the movement does wonders for youngsters confidence. "The first thing youre taught is to: Get up, speak up and shut up. I learnt the first two!"
He was president of the National Federation of YFCs for 10 years and became a popular figure at their annual convention, a weekend when thousands of members from across the country have a get-together for business and booze. "I always used to say, every year, I never knew whether that added 10 years to my life or took 10 years off it."
And now, nearly 70 years after first joining, hes the National Federations deputy president. "I love the Young Farmers – its a great movement," he says.
At the farm sale, Henry Plumbs got his eye on some dairy cattle. He meets up with John, his son, and Johns herdsman Peter Moore to inspect the stock, then catches up with other salegoers – many of them old friends – and keeps a careful eye on the bidding.
As a child, Henry always wanted to be an auctioneer. "I just loved watching auctioneers at work. When I was about 10 years old and no-one was around, Id go into a room and stand on the chair and sell all the furniture to an imaginary crowd.
"A successful auctioneer is a man of the people – a man who knows people. And I pride myself that, in my earlier days, I was very good at names."
Its something that, he thinks, was put to good use during his 10-year spell at the helm of the NFU which ended in 1979. "I could go along to the Council of the NFU and name everybody by their Christian name – 150 people, a lot of whom, I only saw once a month.
"I was fortunate to be a president during one of the most interesting times in the history of British agriculture and this county.
"People say: I bet youre glad youre not president today. It would never happen because Id never stand, but Id love to be president – I dont see it as a poisoned chalice."
Despite his childhood ambition to be an auctioneer, it was events rather farther from home that eventually had a hand in his career path. "I went into farming mainly because of the War," he recalls.
He remembers being summoned to see the Headmaster and told: Your father and I have had a long chat, this is 1941, we both agree that the war cant last longer than six months and youll come back to your studies than.
"I was dropped on a 300 acre farm, milking 46 cows by hand day and night. My total labour force was another 15-year-old boy. That was a tough start."
As he became responsible for more staff, however, he learnt some invaluable lessons. He was just a teenager – but was the boss as far as the farm workers were concerned. "I used to say to them, at eight oclock every morning when we finished milking: This is what I think we should do today, what do you think?
"They would confer with each other and often tell me what Id told them – but it was their decision. And when I was president of the European Parliament, I had a meeting every morning at 8 oclock with my six senior people and I did exactly the same!
"Basically, I enjoyed being a team leader and thats exactly what Ive done all my life.
"Im not a workaholic at all; Im basically lazy, I think. One thing my dear wife has always said about me is that Im only good at one thing and thats delegation – and that is the story of my life."
One project thats currently occupying Henry Plumb is establishing The Henry Plumb Trust. Its aim is to fund young people for education or travel. Its coffers are swelling (partly from sales of his recently-published autobiography The Plumb Line) and he hopes to make the first award next year.
"It sounds a bit idealistic but everything I do now is geared in my mind to paying back everything that Ive enjoyed."
Not going to university was, he says, a missed opportunity in his life. "Id love to have had a good education."
But what about other regrets? "A lot of things I should have done differently – I should have made a much better job of doing everything Ive done.
"But I often feel that Im the luckiest chap on earth to have the chances Ive had."
And as to where – over such a long and varied career – hes felt most at ease, most happy? "With farmers – every time," he answers without a flicker of hesitation. "I always come back to farmers."
This doesnt mean, of course, he cant be critical of the agricultural community. "I sometimes think farmers are difficult to the point of cussidness," he says, dubbing the industrys record on cooperation and marketing "a chapter of missed opportunities.
"But theyre the salt of the earth – the most wonderful people to work with and for."
The Plumbs end up buying five cows at the sale, paying about £600 apiece. Henry reckons hes got a good deal. "My son seems quite happy – and the herdsmans even happier – and thats all that matters," laughs Henry.
Then its back to his farm. "When people ask me where I live, I used to say in an aeroplane – then Id say my home is only three miles from a hunk of stone that marks the centre of England and Im proud of it.
"Back in the House of Lords, nobody sees me as past president of the European Parliament -Im seen as Mr Agriculture and Im proud of it."
* The Plumb Line is published by The Greycoat Press, priced £18.99. ISBN:189990803X
Back then… Henry Plumb addresses an NFU agm in the 1970s
Now… Henry at home on his beloved Warwickshire farm.