Obituaries: Bill Price

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The Independent Culture
IT IS a common enough myth that the House of Commons used to abound with men capable of witty repartee - F.E. Smith, Lord Birkenhead, Churchill, Aneurin Bevan, Leslie Hale and others. Actually, delivering high quality repartee is a rare skill, and equally rare among MPs. Among those endowed with this elusive form of wit was Bill Price, the golden-haired, chubby, fresh-faced, chirpy and often cocky member of parliament for Rugby.

I was once in the Commons chamber when Sir Gerald Nabarro, the handle- bar moustached, immaculately dressed, rose-in-the-button-hole MP for Kidderminster rose to attack Price, only to be met with a flick of the hand: "get back into Burton's window where you belong". Later in the tea room I opined to Price that he had gone a bit over the top. "Shucks," he said, "I don't think Burton's is a tailor of taste!"

Bill Price was a miner's son. In his maiden speech in May 1966 he explained that his father had had to make do at the coal face on pounds 4 a week and that his injuries and health made his mother a widow much earlier than most. He had a passion for a Labour government that helped people in the same circumstances as those in which he had been brought up.

Though he never missed an opportunity of mentioning his roots when advocating some immensely moderate policy which would suit the electorate of Rugby, Price came from a rather special coalfield. He was a miner's son from the Forest of Dene, went to school at Cinderford and attended the Forest of Dene and Gloucester Technical Colleges. The Forest of Dene mining community was rather different from that of the Yorkshire and Welsh coal fields and gave him a deeply different outlook from the orthodox "shibboleths" - one of Price's favourite words - of Labour MPs from traditional mining constituencies. Price displayed "New Labour tendencies" without which he would not have been papabile for marginal Rugby 15 years before Tony Blair became an MP.

His first job after leaving Gloucester Technical College was as a journalist on three Forest newspapers in his native Cinderford. He was talent-spotted in 1959 by the Coventry Evening Telegraph, where as a reporter he impressed both Maurice Edelman, MP for Coventry North and author, and Dick Crossman, who represented Coventry South-East. Both tried to persuade him towards parliamentary ambitions which until then he told me he had not harboured. Price also won the good opinion of Julius Silverman, then MP for Birmingham Erdington, during the time he worked on the Birmingham Post between 1962 and 1966.

The Conservative MP for Rugby had a majority of 1,689 in 1959 and was the former intelligence officer Roy Wise, a man of pronounced right-wing opinions. In one of the crucial contests of the 1966 general election Price dislodged Wise by 21,797 votes to 21,388, a margin of 0.9 per cent.

In his maiden speech Price stated:

Time is short and I do not propose to say much about my constituency other than

it gave its name to the rather curious game of rugby football. It all started when a youngster called William Webb-Ellis broke the rules by picking up the ball for some unaccountable reason and running for dear life. I make no secret of the fact that I am one of the tea-room warriors who regard the activities of this House as equally curious. I only hope that if the need arises I shall be as fast with my order paper as Webb- Ellis was with the ball in 1823. The plaque at Rugby School says: "With fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time, he took up the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating that distinctive feature of the Rugby game".

This encapsulated Price's subsequent attitude to the arcane rules and procedures of the House of Commons.

Much concerned about holding his seat, his talisman in politics was what the workers of General Electric and BICC at Rugby would take. If Arnold Weinstock's employees did not fancy a policy, Price would rubbish it. "Don't think Price is very happy about a Prices and Incomes policy," he would say about a policy that disadvantaged skilled workers in the Electrical Power industry. He was lukewarm about any restrictions on the wages which would accrue to the highly skilled Electrical Transformer Manufacturers of Rugby, to the point of telling Johnny Boyd, the then powerful Scottish Salvation Army General Secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering Workers Union, that he thought he knew more about Boyd's members' aspirations than Boyd did. Even Price's parliamentary neighbour Dick Crossman winced when Boyd tackled him about Price's irreverent views as a fellow member of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party.

The forum where Price was extremely effective was the then Thursday night meetings of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Will Howie (now Lord Howie of Troon), the Scottish engineer, and I vividly remember when Price made a speech looking Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and Barbara Castle fully in the eye as they sat at the top table and began memorably: "Unless I get back as Member of Parliament for Rugby, you people won't be sitting there and won't be in government so you'd better jolly well listen to what I'm going to say."

He became the Parliamentary Private Secretary to Ted Short (now Lord Glenamara), the former Chief Whip and Harold Wilson's Secretary of State for Education. Short recalled that he found Price loyal, lively and wonderful company in adversity who gave the Department a lift when it needed it. However Short wryly recalled the occasion when he was due to give a major speech opening Newcastle Polytechnic - he was also MP for Central Newcastle. At the last moment Harold Wilson called a crucial cabinet meeting. Short told me: "I gave my speech to Price and told him to get on the train and go and read it out. Price read it, decided for himself that it was a dry- as-dust departmental brief which would bore everybody. He took it on himself instead to make a cavalier speech about the virtues of Newcastle Brown Ale." Short added that the speech was long remembered in Newcastle - some were amused and more were dismayed at the jocularity and irrelevance on such an auspicious occasion. But that was part of the essence of Bill Price.

In the mid-1970s, Price was responsible for the government's relations with broadcasting. On 7 August 1975 he made his most important ministerial speech:

On the question of editing I hope I am right in thinking that few honourable members would wish to exercise any editorial control over what went out from this chamber. If that were not so, we should be on extremely dangerous ground; as a former newspaperman, I certainly would not welcome it. This matter is best left to impartial judges and we by the nature of our involvement could not be regarded as impartial.

Price became the greatest parliamentary expert on questions of copyright. He was also deeply interested in the delicate question of cutting and editing for entertainment and the agreement with the BBC that what goes out from the chamber of the House of Commons could not be used for such purposes.

There is no possibility of Monty Python getting his hands on our proceedings. That is a clear understanding of the BBC, however I cannot give my honourable friends an assurance about what the Monty Pythons overseas will do, because I understand that once broadcasts go out from the BBC they become common material for use by anybod. It would be misleading to suggest that we could control what was put out in say, North America. I have heard some of the broadcasts which have gone out and they were not at all helpful.

Price paid particular attention to the situation of Jimmy Young, who also came from Cinderford. The fact that there is a more sensible approach than there used to be towards the interface between parliament and the broadcasters owes a lot to Price.

In 1974, he was for some months the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Overseas Development. But in that short period he was one of the few British politicians to take a serious interest in the alarming problems of Zaire.

Had he not fallen to the Thatcherite tidal wave in the Midlands in 1979, I think Bill Price would have flourished in opposition and perhaps become a major figure in the Labour Party in the 1980s. I met him last in 1994 when he told me how much he had hankered after being in parliament, albeit that he had had a successful business career. He was deeply regretful, he sighed, that he had not been more sensible about biting his tongue as he had made gratuitous enemies, thus contributing to his inability to return to the House of Commons. For the past two decades he lived happily with his partner Jan Rennison, who was a former Miss Australia.

William George Price, journalist and politician: born Cinderford, Gloucestershire 15 June 1934; MP (Labour) for Rugby 1966-1979; PPS to Secretary of State for Education and Scence 1968-70; PPS to Deputy Leader, Labour Party 1972- 74; Parliamentary Secretary, ODM 1974, Privy Council Office 1974-79; married 1963 Joy Thomas (two sons; marriage dissolved 1978); died London 7 May 1999.