Dis­tin­guished Tory states­man who re­signed as for­eign sec­re­tary dur­ing the Falk­lands cri­sis

The Guardian - Journal - - Obituaries - Peter Alexan­der Ru­pert Car­ing­ton, Lord Car­ring­ton, politi­cian, born 6 June 1919; died 9 July 2018

Peter Car­ring­ton, Lord Car­ring­ton, who has died aged 99, was the long­est serv­ing mem­ber of the House of Lords. He held of­fice in the gov­ern­ments of six suc­ces­sive Con­ser­va­tive prime min­is­ters and, as one of the most dis­tin­guished states­men of post­war pol­i­tics, would, in an­other age, have been an ob­vi­ous can­di­date for the party lead­er­ship. He re­signed as for­eign sec­re­tary in 1982, three days af­ter Ar­gentina in­vaded the Falk­land Is­lands, ac­cept­ing full re­spon­si­bil­ity as the min­is­ter in charge on what he later called the most sor­row­ful day of his po­lit­i­cal life.

This end to his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer at West­min­ster cu­ri­ously mir­rored events that had oc­curred dur­ing his ear­li­est post in gov­ern­ment, dur­ing the Crichel Down af­fair in 1954. The min­is­ter of agri­cul­ture, Sir Thomas Dug­dale, re­signed his post, hav­ing ac­cepted min­is­te­rial re­spon­si­bil­ity for the pub­licly crit­i­cised de­ci­sions of his civil ser­vants, and the two ju­nior min­is­ters, one of whom was Car­ring­ton, also wrote let­ters of res­ig­na­tion, only to be told by Win­ston Churchill: “I think you had bet­ter carry on.” Car­ring­ton was sub­se­quently taunted for with­draw­ing his res­ig­na­tion and re­mained there­after al­ways un­cer­tain about whether it had been the right ac­tion to take.

Car­ring­ton was a man of con­sid­er­able hon­our and in­tegrity and was much lauded for his res­ig­na­tion.

But it was per­haps this un­cer­tainty about the out­come of the Crichel Down row, in which he had played a lead­ing role as the par­lia­men­tary sec­re­tary in the de­part­ment, that in­formed his in­stant de­ter­mi­na­tion to re­sign from the For­eign Of­fice nearly 30 years later.

A par­lia­men­tary de­bate on Crichel Down had led to the es­tab­lish­ment of rules on min­is­te­rial re­spon­si­bil­ity with which, given the poor intelligence re­ports in ad­vance of the Ar­gen­tinian in­va­sion, Car­ring­ton then im­me­di­ately com­plied, by re­sign­ing from the job he had most en­joyed in gov­ern­ment. It was also the one for which he was prob­a­bly best suited. He did not en­joy bearpit pol­i­tics but was, rather, a nat­u­ral diplo­mat. He also had the most ex­tra­or­di­nary charm and was very funny, a bril­liant anec­do­tal­ist with a keen eye for the ab­surd. He had a fund of sto­ries about his po­lit­i­cal hero, Harold Macmil­lan, of whom he could do an ex­cel­lent im­i­ta­tion.

Car­ring­ton could make wholly in­ap­pro­pri­ate jokes and was for­tu­nate to have been a min­is­ter at a time when he could es­cape with­out th­ese be­ing re­ported. Dur­ing a mi­nor dis­pute with Bri­tain’s con­ti­nen­tal neigh­bours over fish­ing rights when he was for­eign sec­re­tary he once as­serted in a pri­vate meet­ing with jour­nal­ists that Bri­tain would use all its avail­able pow­ers to pro­tect the Bri­tish fish­ing fleet. “What pow­ers?” he was asked. “Ooh,” he said, paus­ing slightly for ef­fect: “Cruise mis­siles, Tri­dent …”

He once passed Mar­garet Thatcher a note about a for­eign dig­ni­tary to whom she was of­fer­ing the undi­luted ben­e­fit of her views which read: “The poor chap’s come 600 miles. Do let him say some­thing.”

He was at home in the Lords in a way in which he would never have been in the Commons, de­spite the fact that many of his fore­bears were ac­tive in Whig and Lib­eral pol­i­tics and served as mem­bers of par­lia­ment, in­clud­ing his spend­thrift grand­fa­ther, Ru­pert, and his grea­tun­cle, later the Mar­quess of Lin­colnshire, known to a wide cir­cle as “Cham­pagne Char­lie”.

This un­cle, the 3rd Baron, was sent to gov­ern New South Wales in 1885 and was ac­com­pa­nied by Ru­pert (later the 4th Baron), who mar­ried the daugh­ter of one of the big­gest land-own­ing sheep farm­ers. His son, also Ru­pert, who be­came the 5th Baron, was born in Aus­tralia, com­ing to Bri­tain in time to join the 5th Dra­goon Guards and the Gre­nadiers and to see ser­vice in the first world war. He re­mained in the army un­til re­tire­ment, hav­ing mar­ried Sibyl Colville, the daugh­ter of Lord Colville of Cul­ross, in 1916. Peter was their sec­ond child, fol­low­ing a daugh­ter, El­iz­a­beth.

His boy­hood was “un­event­ful, happy and dull”. He went to Eton and Sand­hurst and suc­ceeded as the 6th Baron on his fa­ther’s death in 1938, shortly be­fore he joined the 2nd Bat­tal­ion Gre­nadier Guards in early 1939. He saw a great deal of ac­tion dur­ing the sec­ond world war in north-west Europe, en­joyed the army and won the Mil­i­tary Cross in 1945 as a ma­jor, for his role in an in­ci­dent cross­ing the Rhine.

He de­cided be­fore the end of hos­til­i­ties that he wanted a po­lit­i­cal ca­reer. He would later say that he would have liked to stand for elec­tion to the Commons and was aware of the in­hi­bi­tions on be­ing an ac­tive party politi­cian in the Lords. But he was in­ter­ested by the pos­si­bil­i­ties, and as well as tak­ing his seat in the Lords in 1945, he was elected to Buck­ing­hamshire county coun­cil, be­came trea­surer of the Wy­combe Con­ser­va­tive As­so­ci­a­tion, in an area that many of his fore­bears had rep­re­sented in par­lia­ment, and was ap­pointed as a mag­is­trate.

He was an op­po­si­tion whip dur­ing the post­war Labour gov­ern­ment and was one of the youngest mem­bers of the gov­ern­ment when Churchill ap­pointed him to Agri­cul­ture in

1951. De­spite Crichel Down, which arose from a fail­ure to re­turn req­ui­si­tioned Dorset farm­land to its own­ers, his up­ward po­lit­i­cal progress in the party was unim­peded and he moved to the Min­istry of De­fence in 1954, em­bark­ing upon an as­so­ci­a­tion with de­fence and for­eign pol­icy that lasted for most of his life.

He had a lively cou­ple of years, deal­ing with the devel­op­ment of Nato (of which, 30 years later, in 1984, he would be­come sec­re­tary gen­eral for four years), the grow­ing

He passed a note to Thatcher: ‘The poor chap’s come 600 miles. Do let him say some­thing’

anx­i­ety about east-west re­la­tions, the Malaya emer­gency, the Mau

Mau re­bel­lion in Kenya, and trou­ble over the canal zone in Egypt. He es­caped the do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal fall­out from the Suez de­ba­cle, how­ever, hav­ing been con­ve­niently ap­pointed UK high com­mis­sioner in Aus­tralia from 1956, where he re­mained un­til re­ceiv­ing a tele­gram from Macmil­lan, the vic­tor of the 1959 elec­tion, which read: “Will you be­come First Lord of the Ad­mi­ralty Query Come straight home.”

He did not hes­i­tate, re­turn­ing to the de­fence pol­icy in­ter­ests he had al­ready nur­tured. From that job, he be­came leader of the Lords un­til the 1964 elec­tion and then leader of the op­po­si­tion in the Lords dur­ing Harold Wil­son’s first gov­ern­ment.

He was in favour of the moves to­wards re­form of the Lords pro­posed by Richard Cross­man in 1968, but the changes were re­jected by a cross­bench al­liance in the Commons. When the Blair gov­ern­ment moved to re­move hered­i­tary peers from the Lords 30 years later, Car­ring­ton – in com­mon with all other former lead­ers of the Lords – was given a life peer­age, which he took as Baron Car­ing­ton of Up­ton, re­vert­ing to the tra­di­tional spell­ing of his sur­name.

In 1970, Ed­ward Heath made him sec­re­tary of state for de­fence. It was a cru­cial pe­riod: the Con­ser­va­tives had made a com­mit­ment to main­tain an in­de­pen­dent nu­clear de­ter­rent, there was con­tin­u­ing in­ter­est in the role of Nato, and in US-UK re­la­tions, with Bri­tain join­ing the then Com­mon Mar­ket.

Much to Car­ring­ton’s dis­may, he found it “very tough in­deed”, but the prime min­is­ter then also asked him to be­come Con­ser­va­tive party chair­man in 1972. Car­ring­ton had done some suc­cess­ful fundrais­ing be­fore the 1970 elec­tion. Heath thought he was the man to re­store party morale, de­spite the protes­ta­tions of the de­fence sec­re­tary that he had a rather busy day job.

Things be­came even more dif­fi­cult af­ter the Arab-Is­raeli war broke out, oil sup­plies were re­duced and it was de­cided to start a new Min­istry of En­ergy with Car­ring­ton at its head. By this time mem­bers of the Na­tional Union of Minework­ers were in in­dus­trial fo­ment which had led to power cuts and the three-day week. In early Jan­uary, Car­ring­ton had pro­posed to the prime min­is­ter that there should be a swift and early gen­eral elec­tion, al­though – im­por­tantly – not on the sin­gle is­sue of Who Gov­erns Bri­tain?

His then party vice-chair­man and min­is­ter of agri­cul­ture Jim

Prior com­mented: “He was un­fairly blamed for per­suad­ing Ed­ward Heath to call an early elec­tion in 1974. The facts are that he sup­ported an ear­lier date for an elec­tion, one which he al­ways be­lieved would have been won, and was un­happy about the de­lay, dur­ing which time much of the en­thu­si­asm and spirit was lost.”

In the course of his long po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, Car­ring­ton was per­son­ally in­volved in the sev­eral phases of Con­ser­va­tive party devel­op­ment af­ter Churchill’s trau­matic elec­toral post­war de­feat. He helped Macmil­lan with the pol­icy of con­sol­i­da­tion from the mid-1950s and was an en­thu­si­ast for Heath’s one na­tion poli­cies, for his ap­proach to Europe and his be­lief in eco­nomic plan­ning.

His rep­u­ta­tion proved it­self when Thatcher was some­what un­ex­pect­edly elected in suc­ces­sion to Heath. Car­ring­ton was of­fered a place in her shadow cabi­net, not least be­cause he con­fessed to be­ing “out­spo­kenly cool on ide­ol­ogy”. She her­self wrote: “He was not of my way of think­ing,” but she con­fessed to en­joy­ing his style, ex­pe­ri­ence, wit and, ac­knowl­edg­ing this was po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect, his “touch of class”.

Car­ring­ton also had an in­tel­li­gent ur­ban­ity that en­abled him to ac­cept his own priv­i­leged cir­cum­stances with­out ever be­ing pa­tro­n­is­ing. That in­nate skill was some­thing much ap­pre­ci­ated by Thatcher, par­tic­u­larly when she be­came aware of the dis­dain for her own mod­est up­bring­ing evinced by some Tory grandees.

He be­came Tory leader in the Lords once again un­til 1979 and was then re­warded with the for­eign sec­re­tary­ship. Again it was a trib­ute to him per­son­ally that the prime min­is­ter was pre­pared to have such an im­por­tant cabi­net mem­ber sit­ting in the up­per house. Nev­er­the­less he was aware of the dif­fi­cul­ties posed by this di­chotomy and he be­came even more con­cerned later, dur­ing the Falk­lands cri­sis, when

The na­tion feels that there has been a dis­grace. The per­son to purge it should be the min­is­ter in charge. That was me

he bit­terly re­gret­ted his in­abil­ity to sit be­side the prime min­is­ter in the Commons to take his per­sonal share of the po­lit­i­cal flak.

The first is­sue he faced was the prob­lem of se­cur­ing a set­tle­ment in Rhode­sia (Zim­babwe), some­thing that had be­dev­illed Con­ser­va­tive pol­icy for the Com­mon­wealth for a gen­er­a­tion. Car­ring­ton’s han­dling of the tran­si­tion to Zim­bab­wean in­de­pen­dence was prob­a­bly the most sig­nif­i­cant achieve­ment of his min­is­te­rial ca­reer. He set up the Lan­caster House con­fer­ence of 1979, with him­self in the chair, and helped se­cure the agree­ment that recog­nised the emer­gence of black na­tion­al­ist power in pref­er­ence to the soft op­tions of a mod­er­ate African lead­er­ship. The strat­egy and its skil­ful ex­e­cu­tion were both of his de­vis­ing.

He at­tempted to take the same ap­proach to the long dis­pute with Ar­gentina over the Falk­land Is­lands. He had ar­gued force­fully for pa­tient diplo­macy and ne­go­ti­a­tion, while not con­ced­ing the ques­tion of sovereignty. The var­i­ous op­tions were dis­cussed against the back­cloth of many dif­fi­cul­ties, of which the most tire­some was a de­fence re­view. This in­di­cated large cuts in the Royal Navy against which Car­ring­ton had vo­cif­er­ously ar­gued. He wrote on a num­ber of oc­ca­sions to John Nott, the de­fence sec­re­tary, urg­ing him to re­con­sider the with­drawal of HMS En­durance from the South At­lantic, which Car­ring­ton be­lieved sent the wrong sig­nal to Buenos Aires.

In a let­ter marked “se­cret”, he wrote to Nott in June 1981 (re­vealed in a doc­u­ment re­leased un­der the 30-year rule at the end of 2011) that HMS En­durance played a vi­tal role in both po­lit­i­cal and de­fence terms. “Al­though we con­tinue to seek a so­lu­tion to the dis­pute with Ar­gentina, it can­not at present be said that a so­lu­tion is in sight. HMG are com­mit­ted to re­spect­ing the wishes of the Falk­land Is­landers, who do not find it easy to con­tem­plate any de­gree of Ar­gen­tine sovereignty, how­ever nom­i­nal. Un­less and un­til the dis­pute is set­tled, it will be im­por­tant to main­tain our nor­mal pres­ence in the area at the cur­rent level. Any re­duc­tion would be in­ter­preted by both the Is­landers and the Ar­gen­tines as a re­duc­tion in our com­mit­ment to the Is­lands and in our will­ing­ness to de­fend them.”

The Franks re­port, con­ducted af­ter the Falk­lands war to ex­am­ine its causes, ex­on­er­ated Car­ring­ton from blame. He gave as his view in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy Re­flect on Things Past (1988): “The na­tion feels that there has been a dis­grace. Some­one must have been to blame. The dis­grace must be purged. The per­son to purge it should be the min­is­ter in charge. That was me.”

Car­ring­ton had a suc­ces­sion of cor­po­rate posts when not in gov­ern­ment and on res­ig­na­tion be­came chair­man of GEC, a job he did not en­joy. At var­i­ous times he was also chair­man of Christie’s In­ter­na­tional, a di­rec­tor of the Tele­graph group and chair­man of the board of trustees of the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum. He was chan­cel­lor of Read­ing Univer­sity for 15 years from 1992.

He en­joyed his role as sec­re­tary gen­eral of Nato, prov­ing a skilled evan­ge­list for the re­la­tion­ship be­tween free Euro­pean coun­tries and the US in the run-up to what would be the col­lapse of com­mu­nism.

In 1942 he mar­ried Iona McClean – “far the most sen­si­ble thing I’ve ever done,” he wrote – and in 1946 they moved into the Manor House, Bled­low, Buck­ing­hamshire, an area where his fam­ily had long been es­tab­lished. Their new home had been tra­di­tion­ally the house for the el­dest son of the Car­ing­ton fam­ily, but had been ten­anted for a cen­tury and used for evac­uees dur­ing the war. The house was fairly derelict and the gar­den non-ex­is­tent, but in the course of their long mar­riage he and Iona cre­ated a gar­den that was a source of great sat­is­fac­tion to them both.

Car­ring­ton spent his re­tire­ment “grum­bling and gar­den­ing” and en­joy­ing the com­pany of his fam­ily and dogs, all of which were named af­ter post­war prime min­is­ters.

His choice of mu­sic on Desert Is­land Discs in 1975 was ex­clu­sively clas­si­cal, with the sole ex­cep­tion of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes; he chose to take Lewis Car­roll’s Alice in Won­der­land as his book and an arm­chair as his lux­ury. The ti­tle of his mem­oirs was drawn from an es­say of Jonathan Swift: “Re­flect on things past, as wars, ne­go­ti­a­tions, fac­tions, and the like; we en­ter so lit­tle into those in­ter­ests, that we won­der how men could pos­si­bly be so busy, and con­cerned for things tran­si­tory; Look on the present times, we find the same hu­mour, yet won­der not at all.”

Iona died in 2009. Car­ring­ton is sur­vived by their daugh­ters, Alexan­dra and Vir­ginia, and son, Ru­pert. Ju­lia Lang­don


Car­ring­ton in 1990. He did not en­joy bearpit pol­i­tics but was, rather, a nat­u­ral diplo­mat


Car­ring­ton and Mar­garet Thatcher at RAF Ben­son, Ox­ford­shire, in 1982

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