Obituary: Lord Carrington, Conservative statesman and Nato secretary-general

Peter Alexander Rupert Carington, 6th Baron Carrington, KG, GCMG, CH, MC, PC, DL, politician. Born: 6 June 1919 in Chelsea, London. Died: 10 July 2018, aged 99.

Lord Carrington in his time as, secretary-general of Nato. pictured in Brussels, circa 1985. (Photo by Paul Marneff/Isopress/Keystone/Getty Images)
Lord Carrington in his time as, secretary-general of Nato. pictured in Brussels, circa 1985. (Photo by Paul Marneff/Isopress/Keystone/Getty Images)

Lord Carrington, one of the most illustrious post-war statesmen and diplomats, resigned as foreign secretary over the Argentine invasion of the Falklands – despite Margaret Thatcher’s plea that he should remain in office – and later became a highly effective secretary-general of Nato.

And after that, although well into his seventies, he served as the European Union peace negotiator in the bloody civil war in the former Yugoslavia.

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In more than three decades of intensive, high-level public service, Lord Carrington was Mrs Thatcher’s first foreign secretary.

Early in that office, he played a crucial role in ending 14 years of deadlock by persuading the warring factions in the former British colony of Rhodesia, to agree to a ceasefire, a new constitution, elections and a return to legality as the independent country of Zimbabwe.

Right until the last minute, few people thought such a settlement was possible, after previous Labour and Conservative governments had spent years in fruitless attempts to end Ian Smith’s illegal independence.

It was universally agreed that the successful outcome on this occasion was due almost entirely to Lord Carrington’s charm, patience and tenacity around the negotiating table – where before him others had failed.

And in the early 1990s, when John Major’s administration was disfigured by an outbreak of ministerial sleaze and scandals, Lord Carrington was held out as an impeccable gentleman, a stickler for protocol and an insistence – which he applied to himself as much as to others – of the highest possible standards in government and public life generally.

His resignation after the Falklands invasion was a classic example of this. Years later, he was to say: “You have to get things into perspective. I lost my job. Others lost their lives.”

Peter Alexander Rupert Carington was born on 6 June 1919, the only son of the fifth Lord Carrington. He was educated at Eton and the Royal Military College, Sandhurst.

He was then commissioned in the Grenadier Guards and served during the Second World War, reaching the rank of major and winning the Military Cross in the North-Western Europe campaign.

He was a tank commander in the Guards Armoured Division in 1944 and distinguished himself at Nijmegen Bridge in an action which some felt deserved a Victoria Cross.

Lord Carrington, who succeeded to the title in 1938, took his seat in the House of Lords in 1946 after being demobilised, and delivered his maiden speech in an agricultural debate. He had already taken up farming at his Buckinghamshire home, specialising in rearing cross-bred Herefords as beef store cattle.

During the early post-war years, Lord Carrington was a Conservative whip and on the return of the Tories to power in 1951, he became parliamentary secretary, agriculture and fisheries, at 32, one of the youngest members of the Government.

From October 1954 until the autumn of 1957, he served as a junior defence minister. He then left the Government to take up a three-year appointment as British High Commissioner in Australia. He was popular in Australia, delighting Australians with his absence of stuffiness. “My real name is Smith,” he would say, “and my ancestors were drapers from Nottingham.” On his return in 1959, he was appointed first Lord of the Admiralty, and three years later assistant deputy leader of the House of Lords. Some 15 months later he became Leader of the House of Lords and during the Tories’ period of Opposition from 1964 to 1970 he was Opposition leader in the House of Lords.

His modest manner and relaxed style was of immense value to the Tories, not least when he took charge of the party’s fundraising appeal in 1967. The £2 million target was soon exceeded.

When Edward Heath became Prime Minister in 1970, Carrington was appointed defence secretary. In 1972 he acted as party chairman as well, before becoming energy secretary in 1974. He was one of Edward Heath’s closest advisers. Five years later, on Mrs Thatcher’s election victory, Lord Carrington won the prized post of foreign secretary.

Not long after he secured the spectacular Rhodesia settlement, the Falklands crisis emerged. It was a bleak day for him in April 1982 when he honourably resigned on the Argentine capture of the Falklands.

This was one of the few occasions when he grieved publicly, allowing himself as head of the Foreign Office to take some of the blame for failing to foresee the invasion and not to act upon the threat in time to prevent it.

“It takes time to get over that sort of thing,” he admitted some time later. “I wasn’t dead, you know. One of the worst things that can happen to you is to be unemployed and have nothing to do.

“It doesn’t take very long for you to realise that you have to get on with your life and if you are offered a job, do it to the best of your ability.”

Lord Carrington freely admitted an uncomfortable relationship with Margaret Thatcher, but he bore her no malice – malice was foreign to his nature.

He once said: “We had our differences. But I never found that she resented those who disagreed with her. What she disliked were people who disagreed with her who had not done their homework.”

It was then that he was offered the post of non-executive chairman of the electronics giant, GEC. The offer was accepted. But he had not been there long before he was offered a stint as Nato secretary-general. He was popular and effective, arriving at a time when “there was virtually no East-West communication”.

Lord Carrington said: “I was discouraged, to put it mildly, from seeing anyone from the Warsaw Pact. There was the occasion when a Hungarian diplomat, who came to deliver a Warsaw Pact communique, was stopped at the gate and had to hand it over through the grille. I always thought that was rather ridiculous.”

During his four-year term there, Nato was buffetted by several traumatic events, including the Reykjavik Summit, at which President Gorbachev almost persuaded President Reagan to scrap all nuclear weapons; the US bombing of Tripoli without any advance Nato knowledge, let alone consultation.

There was also the long, lingering Nato quarrel over intermediate range nuclear forces (INF). Later, Lord Carrington said: “My greatest regret is that I left Nato in 1988 before the Berlin Wall came down, and everything changed. I think we did a good job, the 15 countries of Nato acted robustly to prevent the INF debate from causing a real rift in Nato and in the countries themselves.

Carrington was an advocate of detente, but he was no dove, and always believed that the West had to maintain credible defences and negotiate with the Soviet Union from a position of strength. And he believed that the collapse of Communism was directly related to the Soviet economy bankrupting itself by trying to keep up in the arms race with the West.

Probably his greatest achievement at Nato was to prevent nuclear war. “We did it. We survived, and we helped pave the way for Gorbachev’s perestroika,” he said. As he memorably said in 1986: “If you are at the summit, you are trying to climb a mountain.”

On his departure from Nato, Lord Carrington was appointed chairman of Christie’s International.

Lord Carrington was later brought in as European Community negotiator in the former Yugoslavia in September 1991. He was gloomy about the prospects for a settlement when he was first appointed, and his gloom grew more intense as he undertook the thankless, seemingly impossible task, of bringing the warring factions together.

But the hatred and the greed for territory was no new phenomenon. It was centuries old and had merely been kept in check by the onset of Communism in Eastern Europe. That, however, proved intractable, even for such a seasoned campaigner as Lord Carrington.

Early in 1994, his services as a peacemaker were called on again: to lead a commission to mediate in the crisis between South Africa’s transitional government and chief Buthelezi’s KwaZulu homeland.

In November 1999 he took up a life peerage after the Labour government axed hereditary peers. He became the oldest member of the House of Lords and also its longest serving member, last speaking in Parliament’s Second Chamber in March 2010.

During the EU referendum of 2016, he was one of five former secretaries general of Nato who put their names to a letter which said pulling out of Europe would “give succour to the West’s enemies”.

Lord Carrington’s wife, Iona McClean, whom he wed in 1942, died in 2009. He is survived by their two daughters, Alexandra and Virginia, and son, Rupert.

Chris Moncrieff