Peter Townsend and Tony Benn

Stuart Weir
21 November 2009

Last week two of the most inspirational figures of the British left came together. Metaphorically, that is. For it was at the memorial service for Peter Townsend in St Martin’s in the Field, by Trafalgar Square. The speaker Tony Benn.

Peter Townsend was a Christian and a socialist. He both studied and reported on poverty in its many forms and took action about it, helping found, to take just one example, the Child Poverty Action Group. For me, though temperamentally and intellectually irreligious, the service was all the more moving for taking place in a beautiful church and expressing religious ideas – what with John Bunyan’s ‘To Be a Pilgrim’ and Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, music and song - in a most uplifting spirit. Finally Peter’s widow Jean Corston read out a favourite passage from John Donne that set out a most inclusive vision of heaven:

Bring us O lord God at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven, to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence but one equal music; no fears nor illusions but one eternal possession; no ends nor beginnings but one equal eternity in the habitations of thy glory and dominion, world without end.

There were quite properly a long series of tributes to Peter’s protean lifetime’s work:  as a tireless campaigner for social justice, a ground -breaking social analyst, a brilliant writer and speaker, a warm and committed teacher and an astonishingly modest man.

The last address was from Tony Benn. I have frequently disagreed with Benn, both politically and personally; and often when I have agreed with him both he and I have been wrong.  But on this occasion I felt he was profoundly right in tone and substance – and I imagine most of us in the packed church did too. Tony summed up Peter’s remarkable life in a short and humble speech. He declared that Peter was a prophet and so uniting all the various tributes that had gone before. Indeed, he was, and a prophet of great and acknowledged honour.  But regrettably honoured in the breach by the party to which both men were always loyal.
This is Peter on the Labour Party:

"The party now seems to be characterised by a diminished attachment to moral and social commitment and by a correspondingly greater concern with piecemeal reform  ... Its leaders today rejoice in the impression that they are honest, practical men of restraint dealing with the realities of life. They are cautious about what they say they will do when they achieve power  ... Their strength is their capacity for sustained practical activity; but as Tawney has said more generally about the failings of the English, they are increasingly unwilling to test the quality of that activity by reference to principle."

He wrote that in 1959 in 'The Truce on Inequality'.

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