John Wilkinson: Conservative MP who fell out with John Major's government thanks to his opposition to Maastricht
Tuesday 01 April 2014
John Wilkinson knew more about the Royal Air Force, its personnel and equipment than any MP in the latter part of the 20th century. No Commons defence debate was complete without his substantial contribution. My Labour colleagues tended to dismiss him as the voice of the Air Marshal's lobby. But, then, should not the air marshals have a right to be heard? Lord Craig, Marshal of the RAF, recalled to me that Wilkinson "cared deeply about the RAF, and had an interesting approach."
Wilkinson's real difficulty lay not with my Labour colleagues but with his own. From across the Commons gangway I could sense the froideur of Tory MPs hoping to contribute themselves but being edged out of the debate by Wilkinson's erudite but none-too-short speeches. Even less well-concealed was the impatience of Tory defence ministers with his pontificating, with the implicit assumption that he knew more than they did. Maybe this helps to explain why this hard-working, able, deadly earnest and long-serving MP never got the ministerial job in defence or foreign affairs (he was deeply knowledgeable about Latin America, and a fluent Spanish speaker) that he so craved.
He was the second of the three sons of Denys Wilkinson, a housemaster at Eton and one of the best classroom teachers I was ever privileged to have. His mother was deemed by boys of the immediate postwar generation to be the most beautiful-looking woman round Eton.
His elder brother, Sir William Wilkinson, was chairman of the Nature Conservancy Council from 1983 for a decade while his younger brother Dick had a stellar career in the diplomatic service.
After Eton, where, like his elder brother, he was a King's scholar, Wilkinson went to the RAF at Cranwell and Churchill College, Cambridge. Unexpectedly in the 1970 general election he defeated the Labour MP Norman Haseldine by a whisker in Bradford West. I was told by each of the three Labour MPs representing the rest of the city, Ben Ford, Edward Lyons and Max Madden, "if we have to have a Tory we'd rather work with John Wilkinson than most other Conservatives!" Wilkinson established good relations with the communities from the subcontinent and with great good will towards his wife of a year, Paula (a social worker), with the municipal and health authorities.
On the basis of his good performance as an MP in Bradford – hardly natural Tory territory – and the fact that he had contested the same seat in October 1970 and had not gone into the "chicken run" for a safer Tory seat, he was selected for Ruislip Northwood in succession to the veteran Tory MP Petre Crowder QC and romped home with a majority of 17,207. In 1979, his career looked as if it would prosper more than most of the "retreads" – awful parlance for MPs who, having been defeated in one seat manage to decamp to more fertile political pastures. Alas, he hitched his star to that of John Nott, as his Parliamentary Private Secretary. Nott, Defence Secretary in 1982, was exiled from the government by Margaret Thatcher, who deemed him faint-hearted (wrongly in my view, as Nott had been an able and effective Treasury and Trade minister).
"During my time as Defence Secretary, three issues dominated," Nott told me. "First, the Defence Review of 1981. Like many Conservative MPs who were uncomfortable about a Tory defence minister cutting back the forces, John was unhappy but totally loyal to me. Secondly, though originally sceptical like me, he came to support Trident. Thirdly, from the South Georgian crisis in March 1982 until I left the government after the end of the Falklands War, John, along with Robert Boscawen, was my perceptive eyes and ears in Parliament and a go-between with anxious MPs."
From 1982 until 2005 I observed Wilkinson becoming more frustrated and sour in the Commons. He became obsessed with opposition to the Common Market, incurring the wrath of senior colleagues who recalled that he had been in evangelist in favour of Ted Heath's determination for Britain to enter. However, personally I acquit him of doing a U-turn out of ambition. As an unrepentant pro-European I took a diametrically opposed view, but I believe he was horrified by the Treaty of Maastricht, over which he lost the whip.
He was one of the 26 Tory MPs who opposed the crucial "paving motion" in November 1992 for the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty. Sitting on the benches opposite, I gasped when he said that he compared himself and 25 fellow Tory MPs to "the anti-appeasers who had opposed Neville Chamberlain's agreement with Hitler at Munich in 1938." In the corridor later I said to him, "Munich! John, that was a bit over the top." "Not in the least," he replied tersely. Clearly, he meant what he said.
When I opined to a senior Tory Whip, another Old Etonian and friend of mine, that he had been treated shabbily, he replied testily, "If Wilkinson insists on flying with the crows, he cannot complain if he is shot as a crow." Curiously, Wilkinson was an active member of the Council of Europe.
Where he really blossomed in later years was in South America; his charming second wife, Cecilia, was Chilean. In 2000, at a week's notice, Madame Speaker Boothroyd asked me to lead the Parliamentary delegation to Bolivia. As I had led the delegation to Peru the previous year I said, "Betty, would it not be better to give John Wilkinson a turn?" The answer was characteristically blunt. "No, do as I tell you." I later discovered that the reason was unease about his support for General Pinochet.
However, with his fluent Spanish, Wilkinson was a wonderful representative of Britain: a member of the delegation, Andy Love, confirmed that "Wilkinson's deeply held knowledge of events throughout South America owed much to his Chilean wife." He particularly impressed the vice president, Jorge Quiroga, although it was an example of his dispassionate intelligence and feel for South America that he predicted that an indigenous candidate should become the next president.
John Arbuthnot Du Cane Wilkinson, RAF officer, aviation specialist and politician: born Windsor 23 September 1940; MP Bradford West 1970-February 1974, Ruislip Northwood 1979-2005; married 1969 Paula Adley (divorced 1987; one daughter), 1987 Cecilia Cienfuegos (one son); died Isle of Man 1 March 2014.
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