Sir Cyril Townsend: Member of Parliament

Europhile Conservative MP whose opposition to many of his party’s policies kept him out of ministerial office

Cyril Townsend came from a service family and was a serving officer with the Durham Light Infantry before seeking a political career. He joined Edward Heath as his personal assistant in 1968 and moved over to the Conservative Research Department in 1970 to double as an officer in the Home Affairs section and political secretary to the leader of the Greater London Council, Sir Desmond Plummer (1970-73).

When Edward Heath decided he needed a safer seat and moved to Sidcup, Townsend inherited his Bexleyheath seat, which had lost a safe Tory ward in boundary changes and which most Conservatives had written off. He won it comfortably, even though the Conservatives were relegated to opposition. His witty maiden speech in May 1974, urged the GLC to retain its strategic planning powers and concentrate on housing “the last and least in our society.”

Although regarded as “sound” on questions of defence – he defended Trident and was elected secretary and then vice-chairman of the Conservative backbench Defence Committee – he was independent-minded and gravitated to the more liberal wing of the party. Although he served briefly as PPS to Reg Prentice in 1979, resigning over curbs on the immigration of Asian fiancés, he was never likely to obtain office from Mrs Thatcher and was ousted from the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs in 1983, no doubt because he opposed her Fortress Falklands policy and looked to a negotiated settlement of the islands’ future.

It was far from the only occasion on which he was to be a rebel. He attacked the 1981 budget, claiming that he had not “come into politics to become a member of the Kamikaze Pilots Association”, and was the only Conservative to vote against benefit cuts in November 1982. He voted against the paving bill for abolition of the GLC and against the Local Government Bill in 1984. Although in his 1977 pamphlet Maybe it’s Because We Are Londoners he supported the dismantling of the ILEA, he remained a staunch supporter of local government as a bastion against Whitehall and rebelled against the abolition of the Metropolitan Councils. He supported Richard Shepherd’s efforts to reform the Official Secrets Act.

In 1988 he voted against the Government’s failure to uprate Child Benefit and the following year was part of a major revolt against the decision to freeze it. But some of his rebellions were to the right, most notably his opposition to the Government’s deal with the TUC on the political levy in 1984, his support for affluent parents over university grants and opposition to compulsory seatbelts for children. He was prescient in his worries about child pornography and the sexual exploitation of children and in 1978 secured the passage into law of a private member’s bill on the Protection of Children.

His major interests lay in foreign affairs. Something of an idealist over Europe, he argued for the political benefit of joining the ERM. He was a convinced supporter of the Palestinian cause and was strongly opposed to the Turkish occupation of part of Cyprus, an island he knew well from his service days and for which he retained a lasting affection. From 1987 he argued against any moves to upgrade short-range missiles in Germany lest they inhibit Gorbachev’s moves to détente with the West.

In 1990 he gave his support to Michael Heseltine’s candidature for the leadership. Although far happier with John Major’s leadership than Thatcher’s, he was dismayed at the growth of euroscepticism and stood down from Parliament in 1997. Eventually his continued support of the European cause led him to join the Liberal Democrats in 2006.

He was the son of Lieutenant Colonel Cyril Townsend and Lois Henderson. “My grandfather was in the Royal Navy and a beach master at Gallipoli and my father was seriously wounded at Dunkirk,” he noted, and it seemed natural for him to study at Sandhurst and take a commission in the Durham Light Infantry in 1958. He served in Cyprus towards the end of the struggle against Eoka and took part in the defence of Malaysia against Indonesia in 1966. From 1964-66 he was aide-de-camp to the Governor of Hong Kong.

Townsend chaired the Bow Group’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs (1977-84) and chaired the British-Cyprus Parliamentary Group (1979-92). In 1982 he became Chairman of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding. He served on the Council of St Christopher’s Fellowship, which cared for problem adolescents, and wrote Helping Others to Help Themselves in 1981.

He was knighted on leaving Parliament and retired to live in Devon. A keen skier and tennis player in his youth, latterly he took his exercise by walking the family’s Springer Spaniels.

Described by the journalist Edward Pearce as a “tidal wet”, Townsend was unlucky in the timing of his political career. In an earlier Conservative party his somewhat weary reasonableness, social conscience and undoubted intelligence would probably have brought him office, although even then he might have chafed at the restriction it would have brought to what he saw as the dictates of a common sense, middle-of-the-road approach to the world’s affairs.

* I can testify as his friend and political opponent, in that order of priority, that Cyril Townsend was among the dozen most respected Tory MPs on the Labour benches, writes Tam Dalyell. It began when he used his luck in the Private Members Bill ballot to sponsor the cause of child protection, but what really earned the respect of Labour MPs was that an army officer was prepared to challenge his belligerent prime minister on the most sensitive of all her issues, the Falklands. Perhaps we should not have been surprised. Townsend was One of the few MPs in 1982 who actually knew at first hand what war was about.

Unlike many of those on the Green Benches he was prepared to stick his head above the parapet and support the doves such as Francis Pym, thereby waving goodbye to a ministerial career as long as Thatcher was in charge. He was an issue politician, not a careerist. It was my privilege to have worked with him on Arab affairs in the 1990s; his sincerity, and understanding of delicate situations shone through in every meeting we had with persons or groups from the Middle East, yet he was unafraid to voice candid home truths and unpalatable opinions about Israel to Arab colleagues.

Tam Dalyell

Cyril David Townsend, politician: born 21 December 1937; MP for Bexleyheath 1974-07; Kt 1997; married 1976 Anita Walshe (two sons); died 20 November 2013.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in