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The great survivor who finally fell on his sword

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Carrington: An Honourable Man by Christopher Lee; Viking £25

Lord Carrington was the last surviving member of Churchill’s government. He served in every Conservative government during the Cold War. He is likely to be the last hereditary peer to occupy one of the four great offices of state. There has not been a Prime Minister, Chancellor or Home Secretary from the House of Lords for over a century. This is a bit unfair. There are numerous politicians who have had wealth, estates, and servants who were not peers of the realm. Being an MP in a rock-solid safe seat is a kind of elevation to the peerage.

The subtitle of his official biography, An Honourable Man, is appropriate. Carrington represented the ‘Whig’ element of Conservatism, patrician and reformist, but reformist only to the extent of what was possible. An ancestor, while in government, had helped introduce allotments to the public. Carrington’s politics did not involve turning a burning personal ideology into policy, irrespective of its worth or workability. Instead he was pragmatic and realistic. But every Montgomery needs good tank commanders to bring the war to the enemy. Carrington won the MC while in charge of a troop of Shermans during Operation Market Garden as part of the Guards Armoured Division. He had also previously been part of the Valley of Death tank charges in Operation Goodwood and survived the Tigers.

Carrington is popularly remembered as the H M Batemanesque ‘Man Who Lost the Falklands’ after his foreign policy failed to prevent an Argentine invasion. He had to endure rabid attacks from outraged Conservative MPs after the Saturday debate following the invasion and felt he had to resign. It was the honourable thing to do; Defence Secretary John Nott was livid when he found out he had been pipped. Carrington’s timely resignation saved him from the relative obscurity experienced by Nott. However, using the same logic, Halifax or Chamberlain or both should have quit in 1939. Realistically, Carrington should not have had to carry the can for the ambitions of a third-world tinpot dictator. With hindsight, only a military demonstration of the sort used to deter the Guatemalans over Belize in the 1970s or the Iraqis over Kuwait in the 1960s would have halted the tottering desperate junta in Buenos Aires, if at all. And John Nott was cutting the surface Navy, including the ship that guarded the Falklands, which the Argentines saw as a green light to proceed. Carrington would have had to cause an inter-departmental row to get a deployment, and this might have resulted in his resignation with nothing changed.

What is surprising from this book, in the absence of prior research by the reader, is how many times Carrington avoided the chop prior to Galtieri’s folly. Carrington was right in the middle of the Crichel Down affair. Postwar governments had refused to sell back farmland to previous owners after a war-related compulsory purchase. This led to an inquiry, a scathing report attacking governmental indifference and the resignation of Sir Thomas Dugdale, the Minister for Agriculture (Churchill refused Carrington’s offer to go as well, stating that one head was enough). Carrington suggested to Macmillan that Profumo was honest, even after having attended, with his wife, a get-together at the soon-to-be-notorious Cliveden (he and his wife made their excuses before the lunch party went on to sample skinny-dipping in the pool). He was also Defence Secretary during the early years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which included internment, Bloody Sunday and the creation of interrogation policy, the latter remaining controversial to this day. Carrington managed skilfully, but not cravenly, to navigate these issues.

His diplomatic triumph was the Lancaster House Agreement, by which the illegal and racist minority rule in Southern Rhodesia was ended, finding a solution that had eluded everyone else for nearly 15 years. For this he received hate mail right up to the end of his life, especially as the agreement paved the way for Mugabe’s one-party state, farm attacks, and hyper-inflationary ruin. But he did deliver the best possible solution in the context of African political culture, and might have also avoided the break-up of a Commonwealth divided by this issue. Carrington cannot be blamed for how Mugabe turned out, or indeed how the rivalries between the Shona and Matebele tribes of Zimbabwe are expressed.

There are sections on Carrington’s ancestors and his early life. The family has been close to royalty since the mid-19th century, but had to work for this, the first lord (Peter Carrington was the sixth), being initially snubbed on the red benches as an arriviste.

There are revelations. The conduct of the British Ambassador to Buenos Aires before the Falklands War was almost treasonous, in that he represented his personal interest before that of his country. There is also a passing mention of some intelligence-led group that Carrington and Mrs Thatcher were part of during the Wilson-Callaghan premierships of the 1970s, which begs for more information.

The book is a useful introduction to postwar British history as it helpfully explains the context of Carrington’s actions but without over-exposition; there is no padding here. It is by necessity selective, as it covers only those events and issues where Carrington had a part to play, but Carrington was so embedded into British politics that this covers an awful lot. An armchair study of government and policy could start with this book.

Carrington did not stop politics after the end of his ministerial career. He was General Secretary of NATO during the Reagan years, from the deployment of cruise missiles in Europe until just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. After this, he was involved in trying to find peace from the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia. A man adept at bringing opposing sides together, he did not succeed in the Balkans. But then few people do. At the very least the return to Sarajevo of shots heard around the world did not escalate to global war, and Carrington could claim some credit for this containment.

The book seems to have been written many years ago, after Carrington’s withdrawal from public life due to age, with the proviso that it should not be published during his lifetime. It could be that he did not expect to just miss out on being a centenarian. It is affectionate rather than critical. However, any honestly critical biography could not fail to be affectionate. Carrington could have been an indolent wastrel, trading on his title and connections. Instead he chose the path of honour and duty, realising that greater privilege required greater responsibility.

The price of hardback political biographies in bookshops has remained static for at least a quarter of a century, despite all inflationary pressures, and this book, for what it is, does represent value for money. It is a useful introduction or addition to the bookshelf of anyone wanting to understand postwar British politics from the inside.

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Paul T Horgan
Paul T Horgan works in the IT Sector. He lives in Berkshire.

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