Lord Carrington, 1979-82
Conservative, under Thatcher
Peter Carrington was, figuratively and actually, the last foreign secretary to sit in the House of Lords. It had once been de riguer for the Foreign Office to be in the hands of a peer, somewhat above and beyond the cut and thrust of party politics. Carrington fitted that bill.
He came from a long line of Whig politicians. His grandfather was an MP (who once spent £22,000 on shirts) and his great uncle was the original Champagne Charlie. After Eton and Sandhurst, he inherited the baronetcy in 1938. He saw action in the Grenadier Guards, and Major Carrington won the military cross.
He took his seat in the House of Lords, becoming an opposition whip. In 1951, Churchill appointed him as a junior minister in the Department of Agriculture. In 1954, when the ministry failed to return requisitioned land in Crichel Down to its rightful owners, his minister and both his juniors offered their resignations. The minister went, but Churchill insisted that Carrington carry on. In later life, he wondered whether he should have resigned. In the aftermath of the Crichel Down affair, new rules on ministerial responsibility were drawn up: it was those rules that would see Carrington resign in 1982.
Churchill soon moved him to Defence, just as West Germany rearmed and joined NATO. By the time of Suez, he had become high commissioner in Australia, where he remained until Macmillan recalled him to the Admiralty. He then went on to be leader of the House of Lords, and then leader of the opposition in the Lords when the Conservatives lost power in 1964.
When Heath won in 1964, Carrington took the Ministry of Defence. In 1972, he also became party chairman. When the Yom Kippur war saw oil supplies cut, Carrington was given the new Ministry of Energy. In January 1974, with the National Union of Mineworkers threatening strike action, Carrington wanted Heath to go to the country immediately. Heath went to the country, but a month later, something Carrington believed was an error.
Carrington was a traditional one-nation consensus Tory, in marked contrast to Heath’s successor. To his surprise, he was part of her shadow cabinet. Thatcher would later admit she liked his ‘touch of class’. He, unlike many other Tory grandees, was neither patronising nor condescending towards her.
When Thatcher won in 1979, he was given the Foreign Office. There, his singular achievement was the deal he brokered to end the war in Rhodesia and allow for majority rule. The Lancaster House Agreement was a singular diplomatic achievement. The fact that it led to the creation of the Mugabe dictatorship and the ruin of Zimbabwe could hardly be laid at Carrington’s door. Indeed, had Mugabe stuck to the principles set out in the agreement, Zimbabwe would be far better off than it is now.
He supported, if also tempered, Thatcher’s robust approach to the Cold War, and certainly helped maintain strong relations with Washington, at a time when the Cold War was getting hotter.
He tried to broker a solution to another imperial hangover: Argentina’s claims to sovereignty over the Falkland Islands. When Argentina invaded the Falklands in 1982, Carrington did what he regarded as the only honourable thing to do. The subsequent Franks Report exonerated Carrington. The Thatcher government had instituted a defence review (often a political euphemism for cuts). That review proposed substantial cuts in the Royal Navy. Had those cuts been made in full before Argentina invaded the Falkland’s, in all probability they could never have been recaptured. Carrington had argued, with some force, against those cuts. At the same time, the defence secretary, John Nott, proposed to withdraw HMS Endurance from the South Atlantic. Carrington (below, with Thatcher and his successor, Francis Pym), feared that it would send a signal to the Argentines that Britain was not serious about defending the islands.
That was precisely the message the Argentines took. Carrington knew that, in resigning, he was offering himself as the sacrificial victim politics demands in such circumstances. He went into business (not so happily), before becoming secretary general of NATO. In 1992, he was instrumental in framing the Carrington-Cutilero Plan, or Lisbon Agreement, which hoped to head off war in Bosnia. It failed: Bosnia declared independence and the Serb government rejected it. The Serbs, Croats and Bosnian governments, accepted a revised version, but then the Bosnian leader withdrew his support. It was a dispiriting and unsuccessful attempt. In retirement, he and his beloved wife Iona renovated his ancestral home and garden, and loved his dogs, which were named after post-war prime ministers. He died last July, aged 99.
Carrington was a distinguished and measured foreign secretary, who took the bullet over the Falkland’s with a Kiplingesque regard for the similarity of both triumph and disaster. Not only was he the last peer to hold the Foreign Office, but also he was the first foreign secretary since Lansdowne (1900-05) to have been in the Lords for his entire political career: he was the last of his kind.
Here is Channel 4 news’ obituary: