Obituary: Lord Peter Carrington (1919 - 2018)

10 Jul 2018

Long before the era of Boris Johnson and David Davis, there was a time when a resignation was an honourable act. When the Argentinian Navy invaded the Falkland Islands on 2 April 1982, and declared the British colony theirs, Lord Carrington immediately announced he would quit as Foreign Secretary. 


This was not running for the hills after a catastrophe occurred, as Danny Dyer might have concluded, but taking responsibility for a failure of intelligence on the part of the British – the total inability to prevent the Argentinian attack before it occurred. 


Lord Carrington saw both peace and war in his long political life, and served in the governments of Thatcher, Heath, Douglas-Home, Macmillan, Eden, and Churchill.


He was born on 6 June 1919 in Chelsea and, like Boris Johnson, his successor at the Foreign Office, was educated at Eton. Carrington’s education continued at the Royal Military College in Sandhurst, which prepared him for the Second World War, in which he served as an acting major and won a Military Cross. 


As the son of a Baron, Carrington took his seat in the House of Lords as soon as he completed his active service in October 1945. During the second government of Winston Churchill, he was given his first job as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture and Food.


Perhaps not the most glamorous of roles, but important in a country still impoverished following the war, and a job which gave Carrington a clear insight into the personality of its leader. 


‘Churchill was such a remarkable man, he really was. He was the great hero of my generation, for anyone who lived through the 1940s,' he told Newsnight a few years ago. 


Carrington remembered Churchill as a terrifying figure, largely because of his reputation. 'He was a very old man when he came back. He still had some qualities but didn't have the wartime qualities.’ Carrington jokingly admitted that on occasions the country was run by Christopher Soames, Churchill’s son-in-law who helped disguise Churchill's many strokes. ‘He was rather good at it,’ Carrington added. 


When Edward Heath's government entered office in 1970, Carrington became Defence Secretary. Heath took Britain into the Common Market, the embryonic European Union which we are now leaving, something Carrington supported at the time. 


Experienced in war, Carrington felt European unity was essential to prevent conflict, but later expressed reservations about how the EU had developed, as did Margaret Thatcher. 


Thatcher made him Foreign Secretary in 1979, a job he later admitted to always wanting. Although today primarily remembered for his resignation, his achievements in that post include the Lancaster House talks, which ended the guerrilla war in Rhodesia and paved the way for the creation of Zimbabwe.


Carrington quit immediately following what he called the 'humiliating affront' of Argentina's seizure of the Falklands. The then-Defence Secretary, John Nott, also resigned, but unlike Carrington Thatcher refused to accept Nott’s resignation.


The British government established a taskforce within a few days and began the operation to repel Argentina from the Falklands. The successful war ended in June but could have brought down Thatcher had it ended differently. The Franks Committee later cleared Carrington of intelligence failures. 


Despite the rather ignominious episode, Carrington went on to serve as NATO Secretary General from 1984 to 1988, and EU peace envoy to the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. He also worked to secure multi-racial elections in South Africa, but all of these projects produced mixed success.


In later years, Carrington kept a relatively low profile. 'I think that when you're quite old it's a great mistake to pretend you're not and to go along boring people with your speeches,’ he told an interviewer. ‘I think when you've done your bit you should shut up.’ Will Boris Johnson, the first Foreign Secretary to resign since Carrington in 1982, heed that advice?

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