Bill Wilson: MP who piloted the Divorce Reform Act through Parliament

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The Independent Online

Bill Wilson, who was elected as an MP for the first time in 1964 at the age of 51 for Coventry South, brought invaluable first-hand experience as a solicitor to the House of Commons. Due to a hearing impairment, which would have made it impossible for him to be a minister at the Despatch Box, he was without ambition for office. He did have a dogged ambition – to make marriage break-up not so much easier, but more civilised and less acrimonious. His great achievement – and I can tell you, as one who was there, it was some achievement in the atmosphere of the time – was to take, as a back-bencher, the 1969 Divorce Reform Act through the House of Commons.

Willam Wilson was born the son of a skilled machine operator who worked mostly in the Standard car works in Coventry. He went to Coventry Junior Technical School, and then in 1928, at the age of 15, he was lucky enough to be chosen by the established firm of Penman, Johnson and Ewins as a trainee solicitor, qualifying in 1939. Serving in the First Army and ending up as a sergeant, he served in the Italian campaign, and in the hell of Monte Cassino. As my friend and parliamentary colleague for 20 years, I only saw him angry once – when someone seemed to excuse Lady Astor for saying that those who were in Italy in 1944 were "D-Day shirkers". Wilson would quietly remind people how bloody the fighting was going up the spine of Italy. Before being demobilised in 1946, he was in Greece. His interest in Ancient Athens gave him a point of contact with his parliamentary neighbour-to-be, the classicist Richard Crossman.

Returning in 1946 to Penman's, as they became, he established an excellent reputation as a criminal defence lawyer and was befriended by a number of those remarkable councillors, in particular George Hodgkinson, who from 1945 had been driving the rebuilding of their city. However, as twice before the war, his two post-war attempts to win the Conservative ward of Earlsdon were unsuccessful. Nor did he stand much of a chance as Labour candidate against Anthony Eden in Warwick and Leamington in 1951 and 1955. He could not win, either, in the 1957 by-election, triggered by Eden's resignation, or in 1959 against Sir John Hobson QC, the future solicitor general, who had a majority of over 13,000.

However in 1964 Wilson converted a 1,830 Conservative majority in Coventry South into a Labour majority of 1,833, defeating the up-and-coming Philip Hocking. In 1966 his majority increased to 5,140 and he was never in danger of losing the seat, retiring in 1983. He was by no means as dismayed as many in the party that he was succeeded by Dave Nellist, the militant, whom he recognised as having done a lot of good social work in Coventry.

"I liked Bill Wilson," Nellist told me. "He was old school. He put in the hours. He cultivated his constituency and was assiduous in his casework. He lived for 20 years in Barford, which was the village of Joseph Arch of the agricultural workers, founder of the British trade union movement. Every year Bill went to place flowers on Arch's grave. That tells you a lot about Bill Wilson and his Labour beliefs."

In 1967, Wilson had a stroke of good luck. In the ballot for Private Members' Bills he gained a spot at the top of the draw, which enabled him to launch what turned into the 1969 Divorce Reform Act. He persuaded Parliament to make irretrievable breakdown of marriage sole grounds for divorce; the mish-mash of matrimonial offences was cleared away and a divorce by mutual agreement after two years' separation was allowed. Where there was no agreement, divorce could be claimed automatically after five years. Wilson met the virulent antagonism of some female MPs, who described his measure as "a charter to allow Casanovas to do as they please". He responded by saying gently, time and again, "What the Law must recognise is that though marriages are made in heaven, they don't always stay there" and that when a marriage is dead it should be given a decent burial.

A practising solicitor – I would see him scurrying to Coventry in the morning to be back in the Commons for a late vote – he served on Standing Committees, and from 1970-79 on the Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration. He made a massive contribution, related to his weekly-fresh experience as a solicitor, as a Member of Warwickshire County Council (1956-1970, and Leader of the Labour Group 1970-1993). In Crossman's diary for 1968 he writes of a meeting on race relations at the Herbert Museum in Coventry: "Bill Wilson, who'd been up all night on the Race Relations Bill, made a really splendid impression. He's a lawyer and knows the Bill from A to Z." Bill Wilson was a glutton for work. But it had to be meaningful work.

William Wilson, solicitor and politician: born Coventry 28 June 1913; Solicitor, Penman's of Coventry 1928-93; MP for Coventry South 1964-1974, for Coventry South East 1974-1983; Member, Commons Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration 1970–79; Member, Warwickshire County Council 1958–70; married 1939 Bernice Wilson (one son); died Coventry 18 August 2010.