Lord Carrington: Last of Churchill’s cabinet who resigned as Thatcher’s foreign secretary over the Falklands

His warnings against the withdrawal of Britain’s sole patrol vessel in the South Atlantic went unheeded – yet when the Argentine's invaded in 1982, it was he who fell on his sword

Dennis Kavanagh
Tuesday 10 July 2018 15:54 BST
Carrington with Margaret Thatcher in 1982. He was unafraid of views that put him at odds with his own party
Carrington with Margaret Thatcher in 1982. He was unafraid of views that put him at odds with his own party (PA)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Lord Carrington, who has died aged 99, served in all the Conservative administrations from Winston Churchill’s in 1951 to Margaret Thatcher’s in 1979.

One of the last of the patrician statesmen, he was Thatcher’s first foreign secretary and later served as secretary general of Nato.

He was perhaps more famous, however, for his resignation as foreign secretary, following Argentina’s seizure of the Falkland Islands on 2 April 1982.

Although the Franks inquiry into the events leading to the war, a year later, found that no blame attached to him or to the Foreign Office, Carrington had felt honour-bound to surrender the seals of office. This admission of ministerial responsibility was something that by then was becoming almost extinct in British politics.

Short, slim, with twinkling eyes and a great capacity for friendship, Peter Carington (one r, unlike his peerage name) was a trusted colleague of both Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher, although he was closer to the former. His succinctness and ability to get to the point quickly made him a good chair of meetings and an effective executive. Harold Macmillan, an admirer, praised Carrington as “the last of the Whigs, full of common sense, a sense of history and very good nerve”.

On formal occasions he spoke in a conversational style, did not take himself too seriously and used his self-deprecating sense of humour to good effect. Chairing a meeting of experts on nuclear power he said: “Science was invented since I left school”. He listened patiently for nearly an hour to an anti-British diatribe from an African leader and later confessed that he would have walked out but there was nowhere to go.

Carington did not shine as a pupil at Eton. Prompted by his father’s wish that he enter the army, he went to Sandhurst. At home, as a young boy, he enjoyed country pursuits, was surrounded by servants, and was expected to dress formally for dinner; it was a restricted and privileged background.

True to the family tradition, he joined the Grenadier Guards; his father and grandfather had joined before him. War service, alongside men who had experienced real deprivation, opened his eyes to another side of British life and deeply affected his political outlook. He had an outstanding war record, served as a major and was awarded the Military Cross in 1945.

Carrington with politicians Rita Stephen and Reg Prentice at a pro-common market press conference in London shortly before the European Communities referendum in 1975
Carrington with politicians Rita Stephen and Reg Prentice at a pro-common market press conference in London shortly before the European Communities referendum in 1975 (Getty)

From a young age Carrington was something of a Tory grandee. He inherited his title as the sixth Lord Carrington in 1938, although service in the war delayed his entry to the House of Lords until 1945. He held junior ministerial posts under Churchill and then, as High Commissioner in Australia, he so impressed prime minister Harold Macmillan that he was recalled to serve as first lord of the Admiralty in 1959. In October 1963 he became Conservative leader in the House of Lords

His early political career was not without incident. He was heavily criticised over the famous Crichel Down case in 1954. This concerned the agriculture department’s refusal to resell farming land originally acquired for the government by compulsory purchase for use as a bombing range, to heirs of the original owner; or to let sections of it to farmers who had previously rented them.

In a subsequent public inquiry the department was criticised and its minister, Sir Thomas Dugdale, resigned. Carrington also submitted his resignation but Churchill refused to accept it. Instead, he transferred Carrington to be parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Defence in 1954. This post began almost a lifelong career in defence and foreign affairs.

He was again criticised in 1962 when John Vassall, an official in Britain’s Moscow embassy but previously attached to the admiralty, was arrested for being a Soviet spy. Lurid rumours circulated, some relating to Carrington, a few were hinted at in sections of the press and there were calls for his resignation. However, the Radcliffe Tribunal’s report on the affair totally vindicated him.

In opposition, between 1964 and 1970, he was party leader in the House of Lords. He took the opportunity to resume his family’s connection with banking, joining the Board of the Australia and New Zealand Bank, and becoming chairman in 1967.

It was in these years that he became close to the party leader, Edward Heath, sharing his commitment to achieving British entry to the European Community. But in the last days of the 1970 general election campaign, Carrington was convinced, like many, that Harold Wilson’s Labour government would retain power. He took it upon himself to tell Heath that he should resign if Labour had a majority of more than 25 seats. A confident Heath gave no reaction and he was rewarded with a surprise victory on polling day.

In Edward Heath’s government, Carrington was made defence minister. His closeness to the prime minister meant that his influence was exercised in many of the government’s key decisions.

In April 1972, Carrington added the chairmanship of the Conservative Party to his defence duties. This post was not perhaps the best use of his talents. He had never stood for parliament, had little feel for the grassroots and frequently offended the traditionalists in the National Union, the party’s voluntary arm.

Heath’s reliance on Carrington was further demonstrated in January 1974 when he asked him to add the crucial post of energy secretary to his other duties. This was political pluralism with a vengeance but, again, an odd appointment. Carrington’s background was in foreign affairs and as party chairman he could be seen as a partisan figure.

Yet he was now thrust into perhaps the most explosive part of the domestic agenda, because of the interaction of the energy crisis (the Arab oil producers had quadrupled the price of oil and restricted supplies) and the readiness of the miners to go on strike in their determination to break the government’s pay policy. The energy crisis so preoccupied the government that a new and separate energy department was created. In his memoirs he wrote: “I went without enthusiasm.”

At the end of 1973 the National Union of Mineworkers’ work-to-rule aggravated the energy shortage. It then stepped up the action against the government’s statutory pay policy by calling an official strike.

Carrington was one of many in the party organisation who argued that if Heath were to call a general election he should do it quickly, by 7 February. He was convinced that the miners would not settle and therefore the government should either cave in (he knew that the miners held all the cards) or call an election. Heath, desperately seeking a solution and wanting to avoid an election, continued to negotiate but eventually agreed to hold an election three weeks later. The Conservatives narrowly lost.

When Thatcher replaced Edward Heath as party leader 12 months later, Carrington, and William Whitelaw, provided important support for her. Significantly, both had been closely associated with the ousted leader. Carrington chaired the private committee which reported on ways to avoid a repeat of the Heath government’s conflict with the miners (and anticipated some of the tactical decisions taken by the Thatcher government). In 1976 he replaced Reginald Maudling as shadow foreign secretary.

Carrington did not find Thatcher an easy colleague. She was proud of her reputation as the iron lady and took a tough stance in her dealings with the USSR. She also adopted a strident tone on matters to do with the European Community. His task was to try and moderate her bellicosity. She knew that she was inexperienced on the world stage, concentrated on the domestic agenda, particularly economic matters; as a result, much of the time he worked in relative peace.

Carrington had reasonable hopes of becoming foreign secretary if Thatcher became prime minister in 1979. But he also knew that his friend Edward Heath – whose sullenness towards his successor he deplored – had hopes of the post. Mrs Thatcher had no intention of recalling Heath and it suited her to appoint Carrington to the post.

Carrington (left) with another former foreign secretary, Lord Howe, in 2004
Carrington (left) with another former foreign secretary, Lord Howe, in 2004 (PA)

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office welcomed the return of the “toffs”. Carrington had under him Sir Ian Gilmour as Lord Privy Seal and FCO spokesman in the House of Commons, and Douglas Hurd and Nicholas Ridley as junior ministers. All were Etonians. Carrington had to live with Mrs Thatcher’s suspicion of the FCO; she thought it too defeatist and too pro-European. She regularly sounded off about Carrington and Gilmour being too “wet” in their dealings with foreigners. He coped with her harangues with a mix of good manners, strategic calculation and patient argument; but at times he found it irritating, even depressing.

As foreign secretary he inherited of number of longstanding problems, including Argentina’s designs on the Falklands. This relic of empire, 8,000 miles away in the South Atlantic and with a population of only 1,800, depended on Argentina for its communications and that country’s claims on it were recognised as legitimate in much of Latin America.

Britain had been negotiating with Argentina for some years and, to avoid a possible Argentine invasion of the Islands, wanted to reach an accommodation. The Foreign Office floated a scheme of leaseback under which sovereignty would be ceded to Argentina but the islands would be leased back to Britain for several years, all subject to the islanders’ consent. Mrs Thatcher, the Conservative Party and most of the House of Commons dismissed this proposal as a betrayal.

Carrington was aware that the military Junta in Argentina were becoming impatient and eager to invade. He appealed to the ministry of defence not to withdraw on economic grounds, HMS Endurance, the patrol ship that was the solitary symbol of Britain’s interest South Atlantic.

Carrington in Brussels, 1985, during his tenure as secretary general of Nato
Carrington in Brussels, 1985, during his tenure as secretary general of Nato (Getty)

Defence minister Sir John Nott, supported by Thatcher, refused. The Argentine military read this as a signal that Britain was not prepared to defend the islands and invaded on 2 April 1982.

The government was humiliated and Thatcher thought that her premiership was on the line. Following a savaging at a meeting of the 1922 Committee, Carrington immediately offered his resignation.

At first Margaret Thatcher refused to accept it. But over the weekend, as he read more critical newspaper comments, his view hardened and he insisted on resigning. As he calculated, his resignation did help to quell the anger in the party and the country.

His realism, or sense of the limits on what Britain, as a medium-sized power, could achieve in its dealings with other states, often struck Thatcher as too pessimistic. He rejected megaphone diplomacy, which she often practiced. His sense of proportion and his respect for other points of view led her to describe him in private as a Whig.

He left government with his reputation, if anything, enhanced. He returned to business, becoming chairman of GEC in 1983, but a year later was appointed secretary general of Nato.

For four years he was based in Brussels and his extensive diplomatic contacts and negotiating skills made him a successful choice. He chaired the European Community peace conference on the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991-92. The Serbs, however, blocked every suggestion and it ended, almost inevitably, in failure.

Carrington was furious that the EU, under German pressure, recognised Croatia and then Bosnia. The recognition decisions, he argued, meant that the EC had surrendered a bargaining hand, however fragile it might have been, for ending the conflict.

He also opposed the decisions to bomb Serbia and brand Slobodan Milošević as a war criminal. On all these issues he differed from both the British government and the Conservative Party.

One of his last acts as a Conservative grandee was to invite Mrs Thatcher to dinner in April 1990 and raise the question of her retirement as prime minister. It is not clear whether he was acting on his own initiative or in concert with others. He suggested that she should be thinking of doing this at a time of her choosing and with dignity. She was not persuaded – in fact she thought it outrageous. But before the year was ended, she had gone with neither choice nor dignity.

Lord Carrington held a wide range of public offices. He was chancellor of Reading University from 1992 to 1997, chairman of Christies (1988-1993), and chairman of the Board of Trustees of the V&A Museum (1983-1988).

Carrington had something of a crossbench outlook on politics. He was one of those close to Heath who wanted the leader, in the October 1974 general election, to offer to form a government of national unity in the event of winning the election. He favoured reform of the House of Lords and pointed out to their lordships, following their vote in favour in November 1968, that if the House had not been reformed it was not their fault.

Carrington liked to surround himself with bright and independent-minded people. His ministerial colleagues, for example, when he was foreign secretary – Hurd, Gilmour and Ridley – were three of the cleverest minds in British politics. Earlier, as party chairman, his PA was the young Chris Patten. Carrington was not given to extravagant gestures.

His eyes closed when he was bored at meetings and his eyebrows were raised when he disagreed with a point of view. He did not like meetings of ministers but preferred to do business by correspondence. Officials admired the brisk way he dispatched business, doing his boxes on time and fighting his corner with Number 10. He delegated wisely and backed his subordinates.

He is survived by a son, two daughters and several grandchildren. His wife Iona McClean (they married in 1942) died in 2009.

Peter Carington, 6th Baron Carrington, former foreign secretary, born 6 June 1919, died 10 July 2018

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