Obituary: Bill Walker, controversial Conservative MP with a passion for flying

Bill Walker, politician. Born: Dundee, 20 February 1929. Died: Wales, 6 June 2017, aged 88

Bill Walker, with wife Mavis, was first elected in 1979

If Scottish Conservative MPs of his generation were typecast as the upper class and the privileged, Bill Walker was another breed entirely. The Conservative MP for Perth and East Perthshire, later Tayside North, from 1979 to 1997, was born William Connell Walker in a tenement in Blackness Road, Dundee, the third of eight children. After minimal schooling at Blackness and Logie schools, he started work at 14 as a message boy at GL Wilson’s department store in Commercial Street, Dundee, to help family finances after his father was made redundant, with no fall-back of a social security safety net.

From those humble beginnings, he rose to be a senior figure in the Scottish Conservative Party, briefly holding the post of chairman of Scottish Conservative MPs at Westminster, and also becoming vice-chairman of the party in Scotland.

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He was often a controversial figure, within and outside the party, as was described in a Scotsman editorial in 1985 as “one of parliament’s energetic mavericks”. Or as columnist Ruth Wishart put it in 1988: “During his eight and a half years in parliament, he has probably caused the Scottish Office more aggro than any member of the opposition parties.”

Mr Walker, who was a Thatcherite and a rabid opponent of devolution, knew he went against the grain in many areas, such as urging Parliament to bring back the birch, or calling for Radio Scotland to be scrapped. But he rarely wavered from his instinct.

This knack of standing out from the crowd could also be applied to his attire. A proud Scot, he would frequently wear the kilt, and was one of two MPs who made a point of doing so at Westminster in July 1982 to mark the 200th anniversary of the lifting of the ban on wearing tartan, imposed after the 1745 rebellion.

“I know that sometimes one is portrayed publicly even by one’s own colleagues as some sort of odd character, a bit peculiar,” he once reflected. “But I believe my positions and attitudes are the result of deep study and a lot of thought.”

At 15 he joined the Air Training Corps as a cadet, flying gliders at Scone and went solo at 16, just as the war ended. He joined the RAF at 18 for two years, then was moved to the RAF’s Volunteer Reserve, where he was retained virtually until the end of his life. Flying, and teaching youngsters to fly, remained throughout his life a dominant passion. He taught more than 1,000 cadets to fly a glider and sent them solo. Some rose to be Air Marshals. Perhaps predictably, he would be referred to as ‘Biggles’ when he made it to parliament.

On leaving the RAF he worked on Dundee Corporation buses, then joined Malcolm’s, Dundee house furnishers, as a trainee and by the mid-1950s had risen to be general manager. He remained closely involved with the RAF Reserve and Air Cadets, and one year took a group from 1232 Dundee ATC Squadron to the RAF Experimental Station near Nottingham. Some were invited to a nurses’ ball and there he met a trainee nurse, Mavis Lambert – though his request for a dance was turned down. Back in Nottingham a year later, he went to the city’s main dance hall and by chance met the same nurse. After a long distance romance, they were married on 31 March, 1956.

After spells in Lincolnshire and Grantham, where Mr Walker served as a gliding school instructor, he eventually decided he wanted to become an MP and joined the Conservative candidates’ list, but needed more income to finance the path to parliament. In 1968, the Association of Retail Furnishers recruited him to set up a training department. He was then headhunted by the Birmingham family-run furnishing company Lee Longlands as a director.

At one point he submitted a paper noting the Conservative Party’s shortcomings in Scotland and suggesting ways to improve matters. Invited back to present prizes at his old school, Logie in Dundee, he was over lunch offered a senior position in Conservative Central Office. On replying he would rather become an MP, and was chosen to contest Dundee East, held by then SNP leader Gordon Wilson. He stood unsuccessfully in the second 1974 election, then was asked to apply for the candidature in Perth and East Perthshire, later Tayside North. There was massive competition – 44 other applicants –and there were protests over his candidacy after a row over campaign literature suggesting that constituents could do advantageous business with Mr Walker’s consultancy firm over a plan to improve farm buildings. But Mr Walker was chosen and, in the 1979 election, won the seat from the Nationalists.

His victory was also remarkable as he had badly damaged his back, crushing seven vertebrae, in a gliding accident and fought the entire campaign in a wheelchair, then spent several months wearing a metal brace. One of his abiding early memories of Margaret Thatcher was that, at the Commons swearing-in ceremony for the new MPs, she had heard of his accident and told him, “Go now and get well – your first duty is to your family.”

In 1985, he earned notoriety for his part in a coup which saw Sir Hector Munro ousted as chairman of the Scottish Conservative MPs, in favour of himself. This caused anger within the party, and the position was soon reversed, with Mr Walker choosing not to stand in a re-run election.

He was a staunch believer in private enterprise and personal initiative, making him a natural Thatcher supporter. Also, during his candidacy years, he read the entire Treaty of Rome and deduced that it was not a free trade treaty but one for political union. That made him a convinced and unwavering Euro-sceptic but also a prime target for the left-of-centre Scottish commentariat. However, he retained his seat, despite boundary changes, in 1983, 1987 and 1992 and only lost it – to the SNP’s John Swinney – in the great Scots Tory wipe-out in 1997.

It was during that final term as an MP that Mr Walker made his biggest stand, resigning as vice chair of the Scottish Conservatives to vote against Prime Minister John Major over the implementation of the Maastricht Treaty. In July 1993, he was kept in secret in the offices of the Conservative Maastricht rebels to keep the Tory whips away from him. He had been seriously ill for several weeks, but travelled to London for a key vote and made it to the Commons in time to place a vote that, without, the Euro rebels would have lost.

Throughout his Commons years he chose to remain a backbencher, though he managed to get five Private Member’s Bills passed. These included the Term and Quarter Days Act, which regularised farm leasing arrangements, and the Scotch Whisky Act which, with later additions, greatly helped the industry achieve its thriving position today. And in co-operation with Dundee Labour MP Ernie Ross, he helped to save the closure-threatened Dundee Dental Hospital.

He held various directorships and chairmanships in the private sector, was deputy chairman of the Scottish Conservative Party 2000-2002 and was made an OBE in 1998.

Bill Walker leaves a widow, Mavis; three daughters and six grandchildren.