‘The last of the Whigs’ who refused to engage in Thatcher’s ‘Little England’

Obituary: Lord Peter Carrington used common sense to avoid conflict and strife

Lord Peter Carrington

Born: June 6th, 1919

Died: July 9th, 2018

Peter Carrington, who has died aged 99, was the last surviving member of Sir Winston Churchill's post-second World War administration in Britain. To the manner born, he was cast in the breezy old style aristocratic mould. A military man by training, he was a guiding force for moderation as foreign secretary under Margaret Thatcher.


Although not as bellicose as Thatcher and not personally responsible for Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Isles in 1982, Carrington resigned on a matter of principle, assuming responsibility for the hostilities breaking out on his ministerial watch.

In his 1998 memoir, East and West: China, Power, and the Future of Asia, Chris Patten rated Carrington, along with Douglas Hurd, as the two most likable and wise people he ever worked with. They had "the self-confidence to delegate and cheerfully to accept the consequences of decision-making", Patten wrote. "Carrington had a mind like a steel trap behind an urbane manner that eschewed the vulgarities of enthusiasm."

As befitted an aristocrat, Peter Alexander Rupert Carrington was educated at Eton and Sandhurst. He served with distinction as a tank commander in northwest Europe and was awarded a Military Cross in the last months of the second World War. His transition from relative rural obscurity as a member of the Country Landowners's Association into the public light came on the Saturday after the unexpected Conservative victory in the 1951 general election: out shooting with local farmers he received word that Downing Street had phoned.

Nonchalantly he finished his shoot, rang No 10, and was put through to Winston Churchill, who asked: “You’ve been shooting partridges – would you like to join my shoot?” Thus did he become one of the youngest members of government as agriculture minister.

Three years as high commissioner in Australia from 1956 to 1959 revealed his characteristic blend of patrician charm, common sense and decisiveness that endeared him to successive Tory leaders.

In 1959 Harold Macmillan appointed him first lord of the admiralty. Alistair Horne, MacMillan's biographer, relates how Macmillan described Carrington as "the last of the Whigs, full of common sense, a sense of history, and very good nerves . . . Any government of the 19th century would have been full of Carringtons – always able to bugger off home to his estates if Parliament no longer wanted him."

In 1963 he was elevated to leader of the House of Lords by Sir Alec Douglas-Home, staying there throughout the Labour governments of Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan, skilfully using his numerical superiority and the peers' residual powers in the upper chamber to frustrate Labour legislation.

His appointment by the pro-European Edward Heath as defence secretary in 1970, and later Tory party chairman, found him embroiled in industrial and economic confrontation with the trades unions at a new department of energy responsible for coal and oil.

As secretary of defence, he personally authorised the use of "interrogation techniques" in Northern Ireland in 1971 when internment was introduced. This was confirmed in a letter from Home Secretary Merlyn Rees to Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1977. It is referred to in The Hooded Men by Denis Faul and Raymond Murray, two outspoken Northern priests who campaigned for human rights of prisoners.

After Heath’s defeat to Wilson in the February 1974 election, Carrington found favour five years later with the usurper Thatcher, as foreign secretary, the first to hold this high office as a peer rather than a commoner in 75 years.

Preoccupied with Rhodesia, Carrington persuaded Thatcher not to recognise Ian Smith's "internal settlement" with the unpopular black leader Abel Muzorewa. In a master stroke, Carrington assembled Rhodesia's political leaders to London's Lancaster House for a conference which advocated a majority rule constitution with safeguards for the white minority. Next, he persuaded Sir Christopher Soames to go to Salisbury as Britain's last governor to preside over an orderly transition that resulted in Robert Mugabe coming to power in Zimbabwe.

Carrington's stature was compromised by Thatcher's intransigent campaign to secure a rebate from Britain's contribution to the European Community budget. Then, on April 2nd, 1982, the Argentine military junta's invasion of the Falkland Islands led to his principled resignation. In his autobiography, Reflect on Things Past, Carrington wrote: "The nation feels there has been a disgrace. Someone must have been to blame. The disgrace must be purged. The person to purge it should be the minister in charge. That was me."

A former Irish Times correspondent this week recalled how he got on well with Ireland's equally affable minister for foreign affairs, Brian Lenihan, but was not so enamoured by Taoiseach Charlie Haughey's opportunistic posturing over the "Malvinas" to thwart her attempts to reform the common agricultural policy.

Carrington did not share Thatcher’s Little Englander ideology or her intemperate temper. On one occasion, he tired of Thatcher’s hand-bagging of a visiting politician and passed her a note. “The poor chap’s come 600 miles,” it read. “Do let him say something.”

In retirement, he graced the chairmanship of Christie's and presided as chancellor of Reading University. Surprisingly, he became, in 1984, secretary general of Nato, where for four years he steered the alliance through the transformative reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union.

In 1991 he served as the EU’s peace envoy to Yugoslavia, but his efforts to conciliate warring Serbs, Croats and Muslims failed.

Carrington died on the same day as David Davis and Boris Johnson evacuated the May government. His wife, Iona, died in 2009. He is survived by two daughters, Alexandra and Virginia, and son, Rupert.