The Home Secretaries (26): Robert Carr

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Robert Carr, 1972-74

Conservative, under Heath

Robert Carr came from a manufacturing background. After Westminster school and Cambridge, where he read natural science, he went into the family business. A lung complaint meant he stayed at home during the war, though he did assist intelligence in their assessment of German industrial capacity and the company made parts for Lancaster bombers.

He had already developed an interest industrial policy and industrial relations. After the war, he found himself in sympathy with the new ideas emerging in the Conservative Party, associated with Macmillan’s middle way, which would find fullest expression in the industrial charter. Thus, he joined the party and was adopted for the seat of Mitcham. In 1950, outer London saw a substantial swing to the Tories (you can read about it here), and Carr was a beneficiary: he overturned a Labour majority of over 5,000.

His maiden speech, on cooperation between management and workers, impressed the foreign secretary, Anthony Eden. Eden expected to be Tory leader soon enough, and was looking to develop a distinctive domestic agenda. He invited Carr to accompany him across the Atlantic on a speaking tour. Tennis had something to do with that too. Carr was a keen tennis player and umpire: he umpired all the Wimbledon finals, with the exception of the ladies’ singles. He then acted as Eden’s double partner, notably in matches against members of a touring MCC side also on board. Having the friendship and patronage of Eden gave Carr a head start. When Eden returned to the Foreign Office in 1951, he made Carr his PPS.

Carr was also a member of the One Nation group. When Eden had become prime minister and reshuffled his cabinet in 1955, Carr won a junior post in the Ministry of Labour under his fellow One Nation Tory and friend, Iain Macleod. In 1958, Carr resigned, to take over full control of the family firm. He remained an MP, but it wasn’t until the company was restructured in 1963 that he was able to return: Macmillan put him in charge of overseas aid.

In 1965, Carr supported Maudling. Heath promoted Carr anyway, first to shadow aviation, then to enter the shadow cabinet as the shadow minister of labour. Carr’s brief was to develop proposals for the reform of industrial relations and the trade unions. In fact, in 1969 Barbara Castle, whose In Place of Strife went further along the road of legal regulation than he had envisaged, outflanked him. Carr’s instinct was to support Castle’s proposals, but he was overruled. A general election loomed, and Heath recognised that if In Place of Strife fell, it would probably help the Conservatives.

It is possible to believe that this was a missed opportunity for the development of some kind of national consensus about the need for trade union reform. Had they been reformed, Britain might have been spared the worst of the industrial strife that so scarred the ‘seventies. Ironically, the unions might have been spared the worst of the fate that befell them in the ‘eighties and beyond. On the other hand, such was the inbuilt conservatism, and belief in their own power and position in national life, the unions may well never have cooperated with a government of either stripe: the turkeys headed blindly towards Christmas after all

What the Tory rejection of In Place of Strife ensured was that Labour were never going to do anything but oppose, and encourage union opposition, to any reform package the Conservatives came up with. As the new minister for employment, Carr was charged with those reforms. It seems that he initially favoured a simple bill, which would introduce the legal principle of ‘unfair industrial practice’ and, in those circumstances, limit the trade union immunity to civil action. Instead, Heath’s preference for the big initiative and the corporatist structure saw the Industrial Relations Act, 1971, which was as much the creation of the solicitor general, Geoffrey Howe. It was fatally misconceived. It proposed that a National Industrial Relations Court would regulate union practice. Had the NIRC ever got off the ground, a bureaucratic leviathan may well have been born. It also required trade unions to register with the government: that would prove the act’s fatal flaw. The union leaders, and the TUC, were bitterly opposed. Under the slogan Kill the Bill, there were mass protests. Carr’s home was even bombed by the anarchist Angry Brigade, and his wife Joan was lucky to escape without injury.

What killed the bill was the fact that, following on a vote of the TUC, none of the major unions registered with the government. When that was followed by a wave of strikes (24m working days were lost in 1972), the act was holed beneath the waterline. Then, a group of dockers were imprisoned for breaking the new law, but then swiftly released to forestall a possible national dock strike. Finally, the miners’ strike of 1972 sank it for good. The next time a Conservative government reformed trade union law, it would do so piecemeal, and at a time of 3m unemployed and mass deindustrialisation, and they would defeat the miners. Lessons were learned, but too late for Heath.

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Carr wanted to stay on in Employment, but Heath made him leader of the House in a 1972 reshuffle. Shortly after, a financial scandal saw Reginald Maudling resign, and Carr was made home secretary. He was by instinct, on the liberal wing of his party. There had been serious prison riots in mid-1972. Carr introduced reforms: he removed the traditional prison punishment of bread-and-water diet, allowed more frequent prison visits by relatives, abolished the censorship of prisoners’ letters and made it easier for remission lost through alleged misconduct to be restored. He looked to build new, more humane, prisons and to extend the use of non-custodial sentences. He stood up to the right-wing press when a member of the Angry Brigade needed treatment in a public hospital (the very group that had bombed his house). He did offer some red meat to the right, when voicing support for a bill supported by the moral crusaders Mary Whitehouse and the Festival of Light against ‘indecency’.

Nonetheless, Carr’s most important decision as home secretary was made in the teeth of bitter and vocal opposition from his own right wing, personified by the likes of Enoch Powell and the Monday Club. In 1972, the dictator Idi Amin declared that all of Uganda’s Asian population would be deported (and would forfeit their property). Carr believed that, as the former colonial power that had encouraged those Asians to go to East Africa in the first place, Britain had a moral obligation to them: in effect, they had been rendered stateless. Carr not only allowed them to enter Britain, but also established a Uganda Resettlement Board to help them. It was, simply, the right thing to do.

When Heath lost power in 1974, he made Carr shadow chancellor. One of his team was the former education secretary, Margaret Thatcher. Carr was never a star performer in the Commons; Thatcher went for Labour with both barrels. Carr was a One Nation Heathite, supporting the idea of an incomes policy. He had abolished the Prices and Incomes Board in 1970, as per the Conservative manifesto, with great reluctance; he had strongly supported the restoration of a prices and incomes policy in 1972. In contrast, Thatcher had converted to the true faith of monetarism. When she won the leadership in 1975, Carr was the most senior figure left out of her shadow cabinet (he had even been acting leader between the first and second ballot in the leadership election). Later, she would claim he would only accept the role of shadow foreign secretary; he claimed she offered him nothing at all. He went to the Lords and returned to a business career.

In many ways, Robert Carr was the last of the true Butskellites (as such, by sacking him, Thatcher was making a statement). A moderate, liberal Tory home secretary and a would-be union reformer whose own instincts warned him of the dangers of the all or nothing reforms he found himself implementing. Most of all, the Patel brothers came to my school in 1972 thanks to Robert Carr’s refusal to bow to Powellite right. As such, he was a home secretary who did the right thing more than the populist one.

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