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24 October 2018

The politics of decency: how Peter Carrington exemplified dignified public service

In praise of Carrington’s wit, charm and occasionally acerbic yet accurate descriptions of others.

By Chris Patten

As I began writing this review, I read reports of the sub-Johnsonian speech by Britain’s new Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to the Conservative Party conference, in which he drew an insulting and ludicrous comparison between the EU and the Soviet Union. This told us all too much about his clearly low opinion of the Conservatives to whose prejudices he was appealing. Hunt is no fool. He must have known just how offensive his speech would be to Britain’s allies and friends. Ah well: “autres temps, autres moeurs.” There was a time, as Christopher Lee’s very readable biography of Peter Carrington reminds us, when the country and the rest of the world looked to Britain’s Foreign Secretary for serious statesmanship. As Carl Bildt, former Swedish prime minister said recently, “(Britain) used to be a nation providing leadership to the world. Now it can’t even provide leadership to itself.”

We all have to play the cards that life deals us and Lee notes that Carrington had a strong hand from the start. However, he played it extraordinarily well to the benefit of his country, our allies and the whole notion of public service.

Born in 1919, the only son of the fifth Baron of the same name, Peter Carrington came from a family of 18th-century bankers (William Pitt the Younger was a client). He went to Eton, then into the Grenadier Guards and won a Military Cross for action at Arnhem. After the war, while working as a farmer and county councillor, he was called by Winston Churchill from a shoot on his estate to join the first postwar Conservative government. He then served in every Conservative administration from Churchill to Thatcher and spent three years as British High Commissioner in Australia.

Margaret Thatcher admired Carrington’s competence, his courtesy and international reputation, though she regarded him as – to borrow one of his own phrases – “so wet you could shoot snipe off him”. He often found her tiresome (for example over Europe) but admired her determination. (The only part of the Thatcher world that he actively disliked was her ill-mannered son Mark.)

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Lee recounts all this very fairly in a readable way. This is not overwritten hagiography. If anything, it downplays Carrington’s wit, charm and occasionally acerbic yet accurate descriptions of others. Carrington spoke frankly to Lee, on the understanding that some of the juicier things he said would neither be published in his lifetime, nor even be available outside the archives of Churchill College, Cambridge. I doubt that his wife and best friend, Iona, would have approved: she would have liked to see some of his enemies and critics put to the sword. But Carrington kept his blade sheathed.

What is therefore kept under wraps is Carrington’s humour. He whiled away his time during boring meetings, not least in the EU, by composing limericks about the other participants. These rhymes were rarely distinguished by political correctness, especially when he borrowed the occasional observation from Harry Hall, his driver and one of his best friends. His discovery during a meeting on Rhodesia that Mugabe’s name spelt backwards was e-ba-gum must have enlivened a drowsy hour. He specialised in a sort of cheerful pessimism during which the glass was invariably three quarters empty. But not everything ended badly. We are told that just before he died in July he greeted the breaking news of Boris Johnson’s resignation with a gentle smile. Henry Kissinger got right the balance in his character between wit and high purpose, describing him as being like a Mozart symphony “bright and entertaining but with a deeper quality in that he was morally and intellectually faithful to his image”.

I had the good fortune to work for him when I was setting out on a political life. He had just been appointed Conservative Party chairman, a job that he disliked almost as much as he told everyone. For me, it was the best part of my education in public service and as a man. He exemplified courtesy and old-fashioned leadership, passing on the praise to others when things went well and taking the blame when they went wrong.

Although honourable, gallant and wise he was, like even the very best of us, far from perfect. He should sometimes have pressed his own case even harder, over the timing of the February 1974 election for example (it was delayed for too long) and probably over the signals sent to the Argentinian government by defence cuts before the Falklands invasion. John Nott may have been correct that he lacked the sharp elbows which membership of the House of Commons would have helped to develop and hone.

Moreover, I cannot help thinking that he could sometimes be flattered into doing jobs that did him no favours, partly because others correctly believed him to be such a consummate all-rounder. He was uncomfortable as GEC’s chairman after his resignation from the Foreign Office, flogging weapons around the world for Arnold Weinstock. Later, it made no sense to try to combine being secretary general of Nato with the chairmanship of the Victoria and Albert Museum, which was consumed at the time by the worst of arts world politics.

Yet overall, his record was overwhelmingly positive, from the Ministry of Defence to the Foreign Office to Nato. On the whole the people who hated and criticised him remind us of just how good his judgement was. He was dubbed a traitor for securing the settlement in Rhodesia and anti-Semitic for his sensible efforts to bring a peace to the Middle East that secured the future of both Israel and Palestine. He was one of the principal architects of the EEC’s Venice Declaration in 1980, Europe’s most significant effort to craft a way forward in that region.

The hostility of the Conservative right-wing to Carrington – too many of them nostalgic numbskulls – encourages many to question whether he was a Conservative at all. Perhaps as an admirer, Harold Macmillan had suggested he was really a 19th-century Whig. I find this meaningless. It is true that like Baldwin, Butler and Macmillan himself he did not like right-wing and hard-faced nationalists. His Conservatism was heavily imbued with a sense of obligation and duty, with the understanding that there must be a touch of morality and idealism about politics and economics if they are to be worth commitment. I always thought of him as a rather Oakeshottian Conservative, understanding that political life, like life itself, involved the attempt to plot a path from dealing with one predicament to coping with another as decently as possible. It was a particularly valuable insight for a statesman in a country trying to ease the pain of relative decline and prevent it becoming absolute. That is a game which may, alas, now be up.

Carrington will probably always be remembered above all for the qualities he brought to the political adventure. Edmund Burke argued at the end of the 18th century that the age of chivalry was dead. We must hope that honour, bravery, decency, courtesy and generosity of spirit still have a place in political life. Peter Carrington stood for these qualities. He was a good man and he lived a long and good life.

Chris Patten is a former chairman of the Conservative Party and was Governor of Hong Kong from 1992 to 1997

Carrington: An Honourable Man
Christopher Lee
Viking, 576pp, £25

This article appears in the 24 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit crash