Obituary: Sir James Hill

SOUTHAMPTON TEST, which James Hill represented for more than 20 years, is one of Britain's super- marginal constituencies. It has changed hands six times since 1955 and has seen even political stars such as Shirley Williams come and leave defeated. Hill, however, was a consistent winner. He was elected in 1970, and hung on until the second Wilson election in 1974. He came back in 1979, however, and held it until the Blair landslide in 1997. For Hill, though, the previous election in 1992 was a close thing. He got back - but by just 585 votes. It was almost the same number as the majority by which he lost the seat in 1974.

If no candidate is worth more than a few hundred votes, then Hill's background provided just the right number in 1992. Few candidates have had such local ties.

As the son of a Southampton-based merchant navy officer, he was educated at the Regent's Park School in the Test constituency and later at Southampton University. During the Second World War he sailed from the port in the Royal Fleet Auxiliaries as a signals officer not out of his teens. Later he flew in BOAC flying boats from Southampton Marine Airport. Even the name of the aircraft was local. They were Solents. He was also a prominent member of Southampton City Council, serving as chairman of the housing committee from 1967 to 1970.

In the Commons he never forgot that he had a marginal seat. His maiden speech was devoted to Southampton's housing blight and he maintained his reputation as a constituency-oriented MP by attacks on his city's vandals, kerb crawlers and red-light areas. Although he was an instinctive privatiser, there was one exception to his robust Thatcherism. He was against any form of privatisation of the Ordnance Survey, a big Southampton employer.

But he was not merely a parish-pump politician. He was a delegate to the European Assembly, where he played a significant part on several key committees. Although an early European enthusiast - he addressed 70 meetings during the 1975 referendum campaign - he became gradually more sceptical, announcing in the mid-Eighties: "The Common Agricultural Policy is the root of all the troubles in Europe today."

He was an easily recognisable figure in the House, burly and thick-spectacled, sitting on the front bench below the gangway. He was popular with his colleagues and secretary of their Industry Committee. He served on the select committees on European legislation, transport and procedure and was chairman of the Commons committee on housing improvements. And, as an airman who held pilot's, navigator's and radio officer's licences, he was a natural choice to be secretary of the Parliamentary Flying Club.

In 1997, the year after he was knighted, not even Hill's local roots and long constituency service could save him. He had been undecided about standing again but in the end he was persuaded to run. He lost by nearly 14,000 votes. At last Test was no longer a marginal. But the result was not due entirely to the Labour landslide. There had been significant boundary changes which had tilted Test decisively towards Labour.

Stanley James Allen Hill, politician: born Southampton 21 December 1926; member, Southampton City Council 1966-70, 1976-79, Chairman of Housing 1967-70, 1976-79; MP (Conservative) for Southampton Test 1970-74, 1979-97; Kt 1996; married 1958 Ruby Ralph (two sons, three daughters); died Southampton 16 February 1999.

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