Peter Alexander Rupert Carington, 6th Baron Carrington, KG, GCMG, CH, MC, PC, DL
In his varied and colourful career Peter Carington was a courageous soldier, a successful High Commissioner, an experienced Foreign Secretary, a senior banker, a University Chancellor and a supporter of good causes, ranging from museums to universities. He achieved prominence and distinction in all these roles but he will be best remembered for his work as a politician.
Born in 1919, the son of Rupert Carington, 5th Baron of Carrington – the family name is spelt with a single “r” – he was educated at Eton and then attended the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.
He was commissioned into the Grenadier Guards as a Second Lieutenant in 1939. In spring 1942 he married Iona Maclean in The Guards Chapel, and throughout their long and happy marriage she gave him what he described as “untiring support”.
After D Day in 1944 he was engaged in fighting with the Guards Armoured division around Caen. On 2 and 3 September he and his tanks had a massive breakthrough and he drove into Brussels, where they received a great welcome and, incidentally, some cases of Champagne from what had been the Wehrmacht Champagne Store.
However, it was in relation to Operation Market Garden that he, along with his men, showed outstanding courage. While parachutists engaged the Germans at Arnhem, it was his personal responsibility to capture Nijmegen Bridge intact, with a half squadron of tanks
As the bridge was wired with explosives, with German soldiers in the girders, this assignment was fraught with danger, at least until the wires to the explosives were cut. By some miracle Peter Carrington and his men were able to get across the bridge almost unscathed, which greatly assisted the onward progress of the British armed services.
Carrington would later admit that getting across Nijmegen Bridge, when they might have been blown to bits at any moment, was the longest three minutes of his life. He was later awarded the Military Cross for his part in taking and holding the bridge.
He took his seat in the House of Lords in 1945 and in 1951 Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who rated courage under fire very highly, made him a Junior Minister at the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. Three years later he was moved to the Ministry of Defence.
While at the Ministry, Carrington ran into some controversy over the proposal to set a rocket range in the Uists. A Roman Catholic priest had mobilised some opposition to the plan and the Minister travelled to the Western Isles and had a drink with him in a pub. The rocket range went ahead and author Compton Mackenzie later based his novel Rockets Galore on the affair.
In 1956 the highly regarded Lord Carrington was sent as High Commissioner to Australia at the young age of 37.
While there he realised that Australia’s defence and trade relations with the USA were becoming of increasing importance and the relationship with Britain, although very strong, was no longer paramount.
A tour of Australia by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan proved very successful and it was no coincidence that he invited Carrington to become First Lord of the Admiralty in 1959.
In his job Lord Carrington worked closely with the United States Government and his sense of humour caused him to relate a story which passed into the folklore of Parliamentary jokes. It is contained in his book Reflect on things Past in which, in a story which I believe would scarcely pass muster as properly politically correct today, he describes how he had visited an American admiral and a strikingly beautiful woman was introduced to him as the admiral’s wife. Not long afterwards a second woman, who appeared identical to the first, entered and was introduced as the sister of the admiral’s wife. When Carrington asked how the admiral could distinguish between them, the admiral replied: “That’s their problem, not mine!”
At the Admiralty his performance was very competent, although he did come in for rough handling from the Press when the civil servant John Vassall was unmasked as a Soviet spy.
Vassall had worked at the Admiralty when Carrington was in charge and as the scandal continued, two reporters were sent to jail for refusing to name their sources. Carrington himself had felt he should fight a libel action from which he emerged with his reputation intact, but which he found to be a thoroughly disagreeable experience.
In 1963 he became Leader of the House of Lords and after the General Election in 1964, which the Conservatives lost, he acted as Leader of the Opposition in the Upper House, a position he held until 1970.
Not long afterwards he was invited to be Deputy Chairman of the Board of the Australian and New Zealand Bank but he still spent most of his time in the House of Lords. At that time he supported radical reform designed to create a more powerful Second Chamber.
He wrote: “I realised as I think I had always realised that the existing composition of the House of Lords was not simply hard to defend in political terms – it was actually dangerous.” However, the House of Commons did not want a more powerful House of Lords and an unholy alliance from the Left and the Right, of Michael Foot and Enoch Powell, scuppered the attempt to reform the Upper House. After this Carrington believed that it would be desirable to have an elected Second Chamber. The controversy over the reform of the House of Lords continues until this day
When the Conservatives under Ted Heath were re-elected in 1974 he found himself appointed Secretary of State for Defence and in this job he made a considerable number of decisions which were warmly welcomed. There had been a petition in Scotland signed by about one million people urging the Government to save the Argyll sand Sutherland Highlanders and Carrington saved them. He enlarged the Territorial Army by some 10,000, created more squadrons of Jaguar aircraft and reinforced the Government’s support of the Brigade of Gurkhas.
In April 1972 he also became Chairman of the Conservative Party, remaining at Central Office until 1974 and then again acted as Shadow Opposition Leader in the Lords. Margaret Thatcher’s arrival at No 10 Downing Street saw him given the biggest job of his career (and one he had hoped for all his life) as Foreign Secretary. In this office he vigorously supported Britain playing a full part within the European Community.
It was largely due to his determined efforts and skilful diplomacy during the negotiations at the Lancaster House Conference that an agreed settlement was found to the conflict in Rhodesia which had claimed many lives. It was a substantial personal triumph for him and his team at the Foreign Office.
He was to be less lucky in his relations with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. Carrington knew that an invasion of the islands by Argentina was possible but thought it unlikely that an assault would happen speedily and with no warning. He considered that sending out armed forces to the South Atlantic in sufficient strength to deter any possibility of invasion, in implementation of a Fortress Falklands policy, would be “impossibly onerous and expensive”. He feared that sending such a force might actually precipitate the very invasion it sought to prevent, and in any case, it would be prohibitively extravagant to keep such a force in the South Atlantic for an indefinite period.
When the invasion was launched by General Galtieri on 2 April 1982, MPs in the House of Commons reacted with tremendous anger and three days later Lord Carrington resigned. His action was accepted as being correct and honourable.
As he himself admitted “The anger of the British people in Parliament at the Argentine invasion was a righteous anger and it was my duty and fate to do something to assuage it; the rest was done by brave sailors and soldiers and airmen, too many of whom laid down not office but their lives.”
His resignation was the only major setback in his life and he was philosophical about it. He accurately appreciated that: “Local wars are likely to continue and it must remain the object of statesmen to eliminate their cause, to prevent their outbreak and when they occur to contain them in scope.” Although he had not succeeded in preventing the Falklands conflict, he had managed to bring the Rhodesian war to an end.
After his resignation Lord Carrington went on to hold many key jobs. He was appointed chairman of the huge company GEC from 1983-84. He also derived particular enjoyment and pleasure from his appointment as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
In 1984, with the full support of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, he became Secretary General of Nato, a job he held until 1988. In this role he worked with his customary dedication and energy and travelled widely throughout Europe. When he retired from Nato he became Chairman of Christie’s International and a Director of the Telegraph in 1990. Throughout all this time he maintained his interest in Foreign Affairs and in 1991-92 he took the Chair at the European Community Conference in Yugoslavia.
Many honours came his way. He received the KCMG in 1958 and became a Privy Counsellor a year later. In 1983 he was appointed a Companion of Honour and in 1985 a Knight of the Garter. The GCMG was conferred on him in 1988
Lord Carrington also received recognition from a large number of educational institutions.
From 1966-81 he acted as a Fellow of Eton College and became a Fellow of St Antony’s College at Oxford University in 1982. He received an Honorary LLD from Cambridge, Leeds, Aberdeen, Nottingham and Birmingham and in addition was made an Honorary Doctor of Laws at a considerable number of universities, including Harvard. In 1992 he became Chancellor of the University of Reading.
He was also a member of the Royal Academy of Arts, President of the Pilgrims, an Honorary Bencher of the Middle Temple and an Honorary Elder Brother of Trinity House. After the passing of the Act which took away the automatic right of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords he was created a Life Peer as Baron Carrington of Upton so that he could remain in the Upper Chamber.
As the decades rolled by he acted throughout his working life with courage, humour and commitment to the highest principles. Looked at overall his exceptionally long and varied career, pursued at home and abroad, constituted a record of sustained public service in times of war and peace.