Sir Peter Carey: Leading civil servant and businessman

In his long life Peter Carey achieved success across a variety of fields. First, as an intelligence officer, speaking fluent Serbo-Croat, attached to Force 7 Brigade in the Balkans from 1943-45, liaising with the partisans, harrying the Germans and interfering with their communications right up to D-Day. Second, as probably the most dynamic, authoritative and influential Permanent Secretary from 1974-83. And finally, from 1983-93, as a leading figure in the City and chairman of a raft of public companies.

Peter Willoughby Carey was born in 1923. His father, Jack, was headmaster of the local municipal college and his mother, Sophie, a nurse. He went to Portsmouth grammar school, evacuated to Bournemouth when the war started, where he became head boy. He won a scholarship to Oriel College, Oxford, to read classics, but after two terms he was called up and the war office sent him to the School of Slavonic Studies to learn Serbo-Croat. Then parachute training and, via Bari to Zaga, Croatia.

His war service in the mountains of Bosnia and Croatia was dangerous and difficult. The partisans were suspicious of the imperialist Brits and were waiting for the Russians. But he won them over with that mix of humour, practicality and effectiveness which marked his whole life. Carey's job as intelligence officer and interpreter for the brigade under the legendary Brigadier O'Brien (supposedly the model for Evelyn Waugh's Ritchie-Hook in Sword of Honour) was not easy. It was no easier for the presence at Brigade HQ of Randolph Churchill and Waugh himself. "Two of the biggest shits I ever met," said Carey. "Which was the biggest?" I asked. "Randolph" he replied. For his services with the partisans he was mentioned in despatches.

When the war ended, Carey was temporarily drafted into the British Embassy in Belgrade; but he wanted to return to his studies in Oxford and this he did, back to Oriel, reading Greats (philosophy and ancient history). He then took and passed the foreign office exam, being posted to the German section where he was called upon to write a memorandum on the restructuring of German local government. Carey, who knew nothing of the subject, mugged it up and had the satisfaction of seeing his draft published, word for word, as a White Paper.

He was also responsible for another White Paper – on the denationalisation of raw cotton – which made him realise the fascination of industry, and he decided to transfer to the Board of Trade. There, his rise was meteoric. He was principal private secretary to a succession of presidents of the Board of Trade; the one he most admired was Ted Heath. From 1971-72 came a secondment to the central policy review staff in the Cabinet Office under Lord (Victor) Rothschild, whom he revered as the ablest man he ever worked with.

In 1976 he became Permanent Secretary of the Department of Industry, a post he held until his retirement in 1983. In the post he fostered close links with industry at all levels. But there was no begging bowl on offer. Indeed, when Tony Benn insisted on helping unviable workers' cooperatives, Carey not only said firmly "No, Minister" but when he was overruled put in a rare example of an accounting office minute to the Secretary of State.

His appearances before the Public Accounts Committee were legendary – so much that on one occasion the chairman prevented Carey from making his customary opening statement for fear that it would over-influence the members.

On retirement from the Civil Service, Carey received 22 offers of employment from the City and from industry. He chose Morgan Grenfell (as then was) and, after the Guinness scandal, when Morgan Grenfell was badly burnt and the chairman, Lord Catto resigned, Carey succeeded him. Within two years he helped to organise the sale of the firm to Deutsche Bank. He also chaired Dalgety Plc and was a non-executive board member of companies that included Cable & Wireless and Westland.

In his long career Carey was much honoured – CB in 1972, advanced to KCB in 1976 and GCB in 1982. Sadly he did not live long enough to see his banner hoisted in the Henry VII chapel of Westminster Abbey.

Throughout his career Carey was lovingly supported by his wife, Thelma. They had been child sweethearts in 1936 when Thelma was a prize pupil of Carey's father. They were engaged in 1943 before Carey went out to Yugoslavia and married in 1946 when he came back.

In 1999 Carey was first diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and he and Thelma decided to go into a retirement nursing home. There his competitive instincts continued to flourish. He prided himself on being king of Scrabble and was still a gifted chess player. Parkinson's led to the broncho-pneumonia which finally killed him.

Peter Carey was a remarkable man – a war hero, a peacetime civil servant of exceptional ability, and then a successful banker and businessman. But above all he was a great family man, deeply attached to his wife Thelma, his three daughters, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Patrick Shovelton

Sir Peter Carey, soldier, civil servant, banker: born Portsmouth 26 July 1923; Board of Trade, 1953, Principal Private Secretary to successive Presidents 1960–64, Assistant Secretary, 1963–67, Under-Secretary 1967–69; Ministry of Technology, Under-Secretary 1969–71; Cabinet Office, Deputy Secretary 1971–73; DTI, Second Permanent Secretary 1973–76, Permanent Secretary 1976–83; CB 1972; KCB 1976; GCB in 1982; married 1946 Thelma (three daughters); died Cranleigh, Surrey 4 February 2011.

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