By Julia Langdon
Peter Carington, 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 leadership of his party. 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, as he displayed throughout his long career in politics and international diplomacy, 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, which 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 had an emollient manner and he believed in negotiation rather than confrontation. 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 and causing an international imbroglio. 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 (who spent the equivalent of £22,000 on shirts and personal linen in one sole bill in the early 1870s), and his great-uncle, 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, in which he was wounded twice. 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 inherited 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, greatly 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 of 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 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 fall-out 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, which might have enhanced his own political career prospects, but the changes were rejected by a cross-bench 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 the family 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 and had made good contacts in the party’s upper echelons. Heath thought he was the man to restore party morale at a difficult time, 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 (introduced by the government to conserve energy). 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. It was a measure of his reputation therefore that 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 a genuine ability to communicate with anyone on any level, and he had, too, an intelligent urbanity that enabled him to accept his own privileged circumstances without ever condescending or being patronising to anyone. That innate skill was something much appreciated by Thatcher, particularly now, shortly after her election as leader, when she was chippily aware of the disdain for her own modest upbringing evinced by some Tory grandees, who lacked the social assurance of someone such as Carrington.
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 he bitterly regretted his inability to sit beside the prime minister in the Commons, to take his personal share of the political flak and physically to face the wrath, dismay and outrage of the members of the elected chamber.
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 and had occupied a huge amount of the time of successive foreign secretaries. 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 which 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 over the islands. 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 cabinet 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.” He also suggested that any change “might well be interpreted as provocative”.
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, despite a successful working partnership with its managing director Arnold Weinstock. 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 had a personal interest in 18th-century English watercolours and furniture. He was chancellor of Reading University for 15 years from 1992, and was awarded a host of honorary fellowships and degrees.
He thoroughly enjoyed his role as secretary general of Nato, proving a skilled evangelist for the relationship between free European countries and the US in the immediate run-up to what would be the collapse of communism. Subsequently, in 1991-92, he had the dispiriting experience of chairing the European Community peace conference attempting unsuccessfully to mediate between Serbs and Croats in Yugoslavia.
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 his wife 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 two daughters, Alexandra and Virginia, and son, Rupert.
• Peter Alexander Rupert Carington, Lord Carrington, politician, born 6 June 1919; died 9 July 2018. – The Guardian.