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Death of a Member: Lord Carrington

Volume 792: debated on Tuesday 10 July 2018


My Lords, I very much regret to inform the House of the death of the former Leader of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, on 9 July. On behalf of the House, I extend our condolences to the noble Lord’s family and friends.

My Lords, it is my sad duty to lead the tributes to one of my predecessors as Leader of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, who passed away yesterday. Lord Carrington’s contribution to the public life of this country is unsurpassed in modern times. He was by far the longest-serving member of this House, having held the position of Leader here more than 50 years ago. Over that time he turned his hand to many high levels of public office. To those offices and to this place he brought the depth of political understanding and experience of a truly great statesman. He was the last surviving member not just of Sir Alec Douglas-Home’s Cabinet but those of Harold Macmillan and Sir Winston Churchill. The House and the country at large have lost a wonderful man and an outstanding public servant, who experienced at first hand many of the pivotal events of the previous century.

Lord Carrington was born in the shadow of the Great War and, like so many of his generation, as a young man his life was shaped by conflict. Although he became eligible to take his seat in the House of Lords in 1938 following the death of his father, service in the Grenadier Guards during the Second World War meant that he was unable to do so until October 1945. He never forgot his wartime experience. It was to frame his personal and political convictions, and his sense of duty to this country, for the rest of his life. During the war he achieved the rank of acting major, as well as being awarded the Military Cross—a distinction he was characteristically reluctant to mention. When pressed by a journalist later in life, he put his award down to “pot luck” rather than his own bravery and selflessness.

His ministerial career began in 1951, which made him the last surviving member of Sir Winston Churchill’s Government. He served initially as a junior Minister in the Ministry of Agriculture and Food before becoming the Minister of Defence from 1954 to 1956, during the transition to Anthony Eden’s Government. He was then appointed as the High Commissioner to Australia and served in that role until 1959. Until recently, he was still swapping stories with the other former high commissioners to Australia in this House.

Lord Carrington was cabled by Harold Macmillan while sailing back to England, asking him to be the First Lord of the Admiralty, a post he held until 1963, when he became Leader of this House under Sir Alec Douglas-Home. He was leader here until Harold Wilson formed a Labour Government in 1964. He returned to government in 1970 under Sir Edward Heath as Secretary of State for Defence until 1974, followed by a brief spell as Secretary of State for Energy. During this period, he also served as chairman of the Conservative Party. Between 1974 and 1979, he served as the shadow Leader of this House before being appointed as Foreign Secretary by Margaret Thatcher—the last Member of this House to hold the position. I have been told that on one occasion he interjected on a conversation that Margaret Thatcher was having with a foreign visitor, saying: “The poor chap’s come 600 miles. Do let him say something.”

Many noble Lords will have appreciated Lord Carrington’s great capacity to advise and persuade, which was perhaps most evident when he played a pivotal role in bringing an end to the civil war in what was then Rhodesia. As your Lordships will be aware, he left office at the outset of the Falklands conflict because he held himself to an exceptionally high standard of personal responsibility and put his country first—before everything else. The Foreign Office was held in great esteem under his stewardship and his resignation was received with deep regret but respect by those who worked with him.

In 1984, Lord Carrington became the sixth Secretary-General of NATO and his extensive experience of defence and foreign affairs allowed him to fulfil that role with great distinction until 1988. During this time, he was instrumental in averting hostilities between Greece and Turkey. He was an unfalteringly courteous man who was respected across the political divide and internationally. Only a few years ago, the then Labour Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, hosted an intimate gathering at the Foreign Office to celebrate the birthday of his much-loved predecessor. The remarks from those who knew him tell the same story: of a charming individual who commanded enormous respect for the selfless way he served this country.

At this sad time, all sides of your Lordships’ House will want to send their good wishes to his children and wider family. As we mark the end of his life, we should pause to reflect on an extraordinary career of outstanding public service and a great statesman who leaves a lasting legacy in the United Kingdom and internationally. He humbles us all.

My Lords, as the last surviving member of Sir Winston Churchill’s Government, to say that Lord Carrington had a long and distinguished career really understates his longevity, the importance of the positions he held and the respect and affection he commanded. He had a truly remarkable life and career as a genuine public servant, and over 70 years in your Lordships’ House. His was a lifetime that saw enormous social and cultural changes. As we heard from the noble Baroness, when he inherited his title in 1938 he was under 21 and so was unable to take his seat. As he was on active military service, he did not take his seat until after the war, in which, as we have heard, he received a Military Cross that he did not even mention in his biography, later claiming that it was a “rough raffle” and, as the noble Baroness said, “pot luck”.

He made his first major speech in your Lordships’ House in 1946, when he spoke mainly on agriculture with particular reference to the post-war housing crisis, labour shortages and supporting an agricultural training scheme for ex-servicemen. He regularly returned to these issues in debates and Questions. In 1951, Prime Minister Churchill appointed him to his first ministerial post at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. In a later interview on changes in politics and how we communicate, he recalled that in those days before pagers and mobile phones he was out shooting partridges when a man cycled up to him with a message: “Mr Churchill wants to speak to you”. He said, “I thought he’d gone mad. Why would Churchill want to speak to me? I thought I’d better cycle back home, so I did. I rang Downing Street and there he was on the telephone. All he said to me was ‘Would you like to join my shoot?’ I replied ‘Yes, I would’”. His ministerial career had begun.

Among the high offices he held, as outlined by the noble Baroness the Leader of the House, were Leader and shadow Leader of your Lordships’ House as well as Defence Secretary and Energy Secretary. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher appointed him as her Foreign Secretary and, with great skill, he chaired the Lancaster House constitutional conference in which all the factions in Rhodesia agreed to a new constitution and free elections, which led to Zimbabwe gaining independence in 1980. Many in your Lordships’ House recall the dignity with which he resigned as Foreign Secretary when Argentina invaded the Falklands, despite the support of the Prime Minister, who considered it a devastating blow and who tried to persuade him to stay. As the noble Baroness said, he considered it a matter of personal honour that he should take personal responsibility. The then shadow Leader of your Lordships’ House, Lord Peart, in paying tribute to Lord Carrington, remarked that it was a sad day for your Lordships’ House and said:

“We hope we shall see him here in the future. He can be sure of a most genuine welcome from all of us, whatever Benches we occupy”.—[Official Report, 5/4/82; col. 1.]

Few Ministers who resign receive such warmth and respect in doing so. His work as NATO Secretary-General only enhanced his reputation for wisdom and diplomatic skills.

In later years, Lord Carrington was not able to attend that often, but he never lost his commitment to the national interest or his interest in national and international issues, as his interviews illustrate. He was a politician and public servant to his core. He had intellect, integrity, experience and great ability. When he spoke in your Lordships’ House in later years his wisdom was valued and welcomed. On behalf of our Benches, I add our condolences to his family and his many friends. I hope that they can take some comfort and pride in his achievements and his legacy.

My Lords, Lord Carrington was, for people of my generation, a somewhat distant figure but someone who one knew embodied the highest values of public life: honour, integrity and a very strong sense of public duty and public service. As we have heard, he had a most remarkable and lengthy period of public and parliamentary service, and he had to cope with those elements of luck and chance which characterise all public life. He was arguably lucky to be moved from the Ministry of Defence to become High Commissioner to Australia just before the Suez crisis, but he was even more unlucky to be Foreign Secretary at the time of the Falklands invasion. Despite having warned of the danger of possible invasion, he took the blame when it happened and resigned. It was a rare case of a ministerial resignation on a matter of principle and an even rarer one in that it enhanced, rather than soured, his reputation. In his memoirs, he set out the principal reason for aspiring to ministerial office:

“It is office which gives the chance to do things, to steer things perhaps very slightly, almost certainly very gradually and, sadly, often most impermanently, towards what a person believes right”.

These seem like old-fashioned sentiments today, but they mark Lord Carrington out as a man of remarkable character and principle. He will be sadly missed by his family and friends, and we send them all our good wishes.

My Lords, I shall add a few words on behalf of these Benches to these tributes to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. His distinguished career both in this House and beyond has been described by those who have spoken before me. I have no details to add to what has already been said, but it seems to me that he was one of those rare people of whom to describe his career as distinguished is a massive understatement. So much happened to him during his long life, and he gave so much back to this country in return.

He first took his seat in this House over 70 years ago when Clement Attlee was the Prime Minister. It was not long before he began to make his mark here, but of course, like so many others, I look back to his decision, at the start of the Falklands conflict in 1982, to resign from the position that he had held as Foreign Secretary. I saw this then, and still do, as a prime example of the very high standards that he set for himself in his public life. It was the first time that his name came to my attention, and although that was 36 years ago I have never forgotten the occasion. I recall the keen sense of regret that I think we all felt up and down the country that he had to bring his political career to an end in that way, but that sense of regret was coupled with much admiration for him as a man. What he did, not only then but throughout his public life, was an example to us all. There is so much to look back on in his long life and to celebrate.

I think I can say with confidence that few, if any, of your Lordships were here at an earlier stage in his career, more than half a century ago, when he was Leader of the House from 1963 to 1964 and can speak from personal recollection of his time in that office. But how fortunate we are that we have a lasting memorial of him: some 30 years later, he was there in Andrew Festing’s painting of the Chamber, which hangs outside the Peers’ Guest Room. We can see him there in November 1995, sitting on the Treasury Bench just along from Baroness Thatcher. Not many of your Lordships were in the House then either but there he is, instantly recognisable. Judging by the portrait of him, some 23 years ago, talking to those beside him, he was then still at the height of his powers.

Like others on these Benches, I look forward to reading much more about him, and the remarkable life that he led, in the obituaries that will be published in the newspapers. I am sure that there will be far more there than it has been possible for us to recall and to reflect upon this afternoon. On behalf of these Benches, I join those who have already spoken in extending our condolences to his family and friends at their sad loss.

My Lords, from these Benches I endorse all that has been so eloquently said about this remarkable man. I shall add two more local footnotes. The family home of Lord Carrington is in Bledlow in Buckinghamshire. He never made anything of this but he would open his gardens every year, and over his lifetime more than £100,000 was raised for local charities. That is the sort of man that he was.

Secondly, the family home is next to a wonderful Romanesque grade 1 listed parish church dedicated to the Holy Trinity. While Lord Carrington was of course a deeply self-effacing man, others thought there should be some recognition of his presence in the community so there is a splendid gargoyle on the north side of the tower. It may even be that, when the painting has faded in your Lordships’ House, the gargoyle will still be there as a permanent recognition of a very remarkable man.

My Lords, many fine tributes have been paid to the remarkable life of Lord Carrington. It is generally agreed that he was an outstanding Foreign Secretary. Very briefly, I want to record my experience of his leadership at the time of the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands on 2 April 1982. I was serving as his Minister of State with responsibility for, among other areas, the Falkland Islands. Immediately after the invasion, he decided that the best way to serve his Prime Minister, Government and country was to stay at his post and to rally support in the United Nations behind the Government’s policy to restore the islands to British sovereignty. On 5 April, three days after the invasion and in the light of the growing criticism of the Government in and outside Parliament, he concluded that although he could not have prevented the invasion, someone had to carry the can for this foreign policy disaster. That day, he decided to resign to make way for a new team at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to start afresh. Throughout that agonising weekend, his only concern was to put his country before himself. My Lords, he did so with honour.

My Lords, I shall be extremely brief, although not half as brief as Lord Carrington would have wanted me to be, because one thing for sure is that, although these are richly deserved tributes to one of the greatest Englishmen of his generation, he would have found them all a bit of an embarrassment.

I spent two years of my life, when I first came into politics, working for Lord Carrington when he had just been made the chairman of the Conservative Party, which the Leader of the House referred to. It has to be said that he did not greet the news of that employment with unalloyed enthusiasm. He was able to contain his joy within the bounds of public decorum, but he did the job with great verve and, as ever, with a great sense of social obligation. Working for him for two years was not only greatly enjoyable, but it was in many respects the best part of my education—I do not mean just in politics; I mean my education as a man. He was a great leader. He gave the credit to others when things went well and took the blame when things went badly: an old-fashioned set of virtues, which perhaps we should occasionally remember.

I think he regarded politics in part as an obligation but also as an honourable adventure. He was personally brave, he was wise, he was hugely funny. Alas, I cannot repeat many of his anecdotes, not least some of his anecdotes about his friends in Australia. He was a very wise and extremely competent discharger of public business. Above all, he was a great public servant. I think it is true to say that the word “honour” is hyphenated to his name. He served this country extraordinarily well, he brought lustre to politics and we should all be hugely grateful for a life wonderfully well lived.

My Lords, perhaps I may say just a few words as one of the Members of your Lordships’ House who served under Lord Carrington in the Foreign Office. I simply say that no Foreign Secretary I served—and I served quite a few—did I admire and respect more than Lord Carrington. He was a wonderful boss and he led the Foreign Office as it deserved to be led.

I was very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Patten, mentioned something not mentioned by anyone else, which was his sense of humour, which was remarkable. During those rather tedious meetings of the Council in Brussels, he was wont to write limericks about some of those around the table. When he left the Foreign Office, we collected them together and gave them to him to remind him that there were at least some useful moments spent in Brussels.

I bear my tribute to him because he was a great man.

My Lords, could I say two personal things about Peter? In Ted Heath’s Government, he was the most senior Minister and I was the most junior—so junior that I was often left off the list. But I did occasionally attend meetings with him, and the thing that I discovered, his great talent, was that he read his briefs with his fingertips. On any issue, he instinctively knew what the main issues were and what could and could not be done. That is a very rare gift among politicians, and it was why Ted depended on his judgment so much.

The one job that Ted gave him that he did not like was chairman of the Conservative Party, as has been said by my noble friend Lord Patten. He came to speak for me in a by-election when I was fighting for the constituency of St Marylebone, and he made the speech that chairmen have to make: “The candidate is brilliant, and the Government are the most successful for a decade or so”—both debatable. He was glad that it was all over and finished so that he could go and have a drink in the pub with the people next door.

He was never a propagandist for the Tories. I believe that he said once to the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, who is sitting next to me, who was then called John Selwyn Gummer, “I don’t really like Conservatives”. None the less, he had Conservative instincts. He was not in the Thatcher Government for very long, because he resigned, but we were attending a Cabinet committee attended by the chairman of the coal board, Lord Marshall, who was going on and on. The noble Lord was quite right to say that Lord Carrington wrote very good limericks; he had a gift for poetry doggerel. The limerick ran:

“The noble Lord Marshall of Goring

Is frightfully, frightfully boring,

And when we come

To 20 to one

I think I’ll hear sounds of snoring”.

That shows the human nature of Peter. He need not have gone into politics. He was gifted in diplomacy, defence and business. We were very lucky to have him in the political world. He was a great public figure.

My Lords, as the last Member here who was his fellow member of the 1979 Cabinet of Margaret Thatcher, I also want to say a word because he was a wonderful friend. I previously served under him when he was Secretary of State for Energy in the rather fraught conditions of the early 1970s and continued to work with him in the Cabinet of Mrs Thatcher in the equally fraught conditions of the late 1970s. He was a moderating influence. It is often said that Willie Whitelaw was the great moderating influence but, in fact, Peter Carrington was also a calming force in a frankly rather raucous and not very calm atmosphere in that Cabinet.

The Prime Minister was of course very frank and open and sometimes rather brutal with her colleagues, and she would begin a conversation by saying, “Foreign Secretary, I hear you’ve been suborned by your civil servants again in the Foreign Office—what a pity”, to which he would answer quite calmly, “Prime Minister I’m not sure that’s entirely fair”. I would not have been so calm, but that was how he controlled the otherwise difficult atmosphere in the Cabinet.

There has been no mention in the tributes, but after doing all those other things he went off to the west Balkans, I think as a representative of the United Nations to try to untangle some of the atmosphere there. He came back not embittered but quite convinced that most of the leaders in that region were on the verge of madness and certainly not people to be easily dealt with. But he was very realistic—he had some rather stronger words about them, which I do not intend to repeat here.

Finally, in his very later years, when I shared an office with him here, he had views about all the leaders of all the political parties. I am afraid that he did not have a very nice word for any of us. He thought that things had gone distinctly off the rails. But this was a lovely man who performed a vast service and was a great pleasure and amusement to be with. Of course, we will all miss him dearly.

My Lords, I worked for Lord Carrington when I was very young, and it was really rather frightening. Here was I entering the Conservative Central Office, and there was this very distinguished man. I only want to say that he was immensely kind. That is the one thing that no one else has said. Throughout his life—and I knew him throughout his life, and lunched with him not very long ago—he was always kind to young people. He encouraged them, and you never felt other than that you were dealing with someone who cared about you. That is a truly remarkable quality in anyone, but in someone of such quality it is almost unique, and I would not like this House to complete its tributes without remembering his kindness.

My Lords, I served two periods with Lord Carrington in the Foreign Office, first as a Lord in Waiting, answering most of the Questions in your Lordships’ House, then later on as a Parliamentary Secretary. I remember that, on the first morning of the Falklands conflict, when he was presenting his resignation, several of us tried to persuade him not to do so. He kept saying: “You do not understand: my honour demands nothing less”.

My Lords, these tributes would not be complete without a mention from someone at a more junior level. I served on the Opposition Front Bench when Peter Carrington was Leader of the Opposition, Quintin Hailsham was Lord Chancellor and Robin Ferrers was Deputy Leader. The whole thing was enormous fun, yet serious. They taught me how difficult and important things could still have a leaven of happiness in the middle of them. It was from Lord Carrington’s lips that I, and many others, first heard the process of exchanging messages between this House and the other called “ping-pong”. I think that was a Carringtonism.

Finally, my Lords, I shall add my own very brief tribute. I served with the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, in both the shadow Cabinet of the 1970s and the Cabinet at the start of the 1980s. He was an ideal colleague and the source of much wisdom. We have lost a great man and a great parliamentarian.