Carrington, An Honourable Man  by Christopher Lee

Lord Carrington has eluded his biographer. In a bit over 500 pages, Christopher Lee offers us a wealth of period detail, stretching back to Pitt the Younger, who in 1796 elevated his banker, Robert Smith, to the peerage as the first Lord Carrington.

Much of the period detail is delightful, but it is the sixth Lord Carrington, who lived from 1919 until July this year, in whom we are most interested. He is known, and will remain known, for resigning as Foreign Secretary in 1982, when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands.

With signal incompetence, the Foreign Office and the intelligence services failed to foresee the invasion, while the British Government, led by Margaret Thatcher, managed to convey the impression in Buenos Aires that Britain no longer cared what became of the islands, and would certainly not fight to get them back.

Carrington took the blame for these failures. In political terms, it was exactly the right thing to do, for it cleared the air and meant the nation could go to war undistracted by bickering at Westminster.

The 1922 Committee wanted blood, and roughed Carrington up when he appeared before it, at the same time taking revenge on him for his leading role in bringing black majority role to Rhodesia, which a considerable number of backbenchers regarded as an act of treachery. The press was up in arms too, and because Carrington was not in the Commons, and had indeed never been in the Commons, he could not defend himself properly.

People will lament for decades, perhaps centuries to come that politicians no longer behave in the honourable manner of Carrington, who took responsibility for his department’s mistakes, although these were not his direct and personal fault.

All this is known, or if not known, can be found in Lee’s book, where on page 445 we also find a Swiss diplomat who served in Buenos Aires during the war accusing the then British ambassador, Anthony Williams, of withholding information from London “on the grounds that he wanted to settle and make his career in the Argentine after he retired”.

Carrington told Lee he found it “difficult to believe” that Williams “was trying to ingratiate himself in a treasonable way”. Lee refrains, as he all too often does, from coming down on one side or the other. My own guess is that the ambassador believed, as most of us do, what he wanted to believe, and only realised too late he had got it wrong.

Lee got to know Carrington well, and writes in his preface: “He wished…that this book should not be published in his lifetime, partly so that I should not feel inhibited in preparing the manuscript. He often apologised for living on…”

That was considerate of Carrington, but unfortunately, Lee still feels inhibited, tells us next to nothing about what it was like getting to know his subject, and instead makes this infuriating admission:

“It was only shortly before his death that he started to compile, for his family and not for publication, a series of vignettes of people that he had known. We had an agreement that most of these, certainly the most intimately observed, should remain ‘closed books’. They will in due course go into the archive of his papers held at Churchill College, Cambridge.”

Is it not possible that having written these vignettes, almost all of which are presumably of people long dead, Carrington hoped they would be published, rather than consigned to a filing cabinet? He himself, brought up as a modest, reticent and well-behaved member of the upper class, could not do that. But he could dangle them in front of his biographer, who with any luck would know a good thing when he saw it.

And Carrington had a mischievous side to his character which seldom appears in this book, where for most of the time he does not come into focus. We are told how humorous he was, and how he could charm people through dreary events, without being given many examples of this.

Laughter sustained him through the long official life which unfolded after the war, from junior agriculture minister under Winston Churchill in 1951 to the secretary-generalship of Nato from 1984-88. It rendered his gentlemanly code of conduct bearable, indeed enjoyable, rather than a priggish imposition.

I recall watching an interview with Carrington in which he described wearing, for a ceremony he was carrying out in the early 1960s as First Lord of the Admiralty, the strangely unglamorous uniform designed for the holder of that office by Churchill; and hearing a lady in the audience say how very democratic it was of the Navy to get a sick bay attendant to perform the role.

Having failed, in a cursory internet search, to track down that piece of film, I rang the documentary maker Michael Cockerell, who said it was not one of his, but wondered whether the famous Chairman Hua story, dating from the period between 1979 and 1982 when Carrington was Foreign Secretary, is in the book. It is, and goes as follows:

“In all the time he knew Thatcher, he only once made her laugh. When foreign leaders came to see her, they would be sat in the Cabinet Room and she would start speaking immediately and never let anyone, however important, get a word in. Carrington would pass notes to her saying, for example, ‘He has come five hundred miles, don’t you think you could let him say something?’ Thatcher would take no notice. One day, Chairman Hua of China arrived and Thatcher made the mistake of asking him, as they were about to sit, what he thought of the world situation. Fifty minutes later the Chairman was still telling her exactly what he thought. Thatcher was extremely irritated and started tapping the table with her ring – a regular sign that she was displeased. The Chairman droned on. Carrington was amused by this and passed her a note which read, ‘You’re talking too much as usual.’ Whereupon she burst out laughing, much to the puzzlement of Chairman Hua who was in the middle of a discourse on the ‘nuclear holocaust of Russian hegemony’.”

In Cockerell’s version of this anecdote, Thatcher and Carrington both get the giggles, which is better, because more subversive.

From Eton, Carrington in 1937 to his lasting regret decided to go straight to Sandhurst, rather than to Oxford. Lee is very good on the training he received, which instilled an extraordinary degree of discipline, without including much about modern warfare. For the rest of his life Carrington could not bear unpunctuality.

In 1939, he joined the family regiment, the second battalion the Grenadier Guards, where his commanding officer told him he must not marry until he was 25, must not wear a grey top hat before the June race meeting at Epsom, and must hunt two days a week in Leicestershire.

He nevertheless obtained permission to get married at the age of 22 to Iona McClean. They were very happy, except when parted by the war, when they wrote every day to each other. Lee quotes the whole of one letter in which Carrington tries to cheer her up, and notices also how much more difficult life is for some of his comrades:

“I have seen people out here who never have a letter or anything from someone they really care about. Nor have they anything to come back to after the war. I know I have & am very lucky.”

Of post-war politicians, Carrington particularly admired his fellow Grenadier, Harold Macmillan, who again knew how to alleviate suffering with laughter, and who for long periods was entirely out of sympathy with the Conservative Party.

Towards the end of his life, Carrington, who had served as Party Chairman in 1972-74, told Lee:

“I’ve always hated the Conservative Party – nothing made me hate it more than being Chairman of it. Individual members all right. Collective so awful. Look at it now. Going down the plug hole.”

He could be right, of course. But maybe those Tory backbenchers who hated him sensed that he hated them back. Lee just calls him a Whig, a label which does not explain what was really going on in Carrington’s mind.

These occasional glimpses of passion, and indeed of radicalism, make the rest of the book frustrating. Like George Washington, a more famous figure who hid his feelings behind a code of conduct, Carrington is too often reduced to a set of virtues.