William Waldegrave reviews Carrington by Christopher Lee (Viking)
When Victor Rothschild, the head of the Cabinet Office “Think Tank” during Edward Heath’s government, wished to encourage cabinet ministers to read his papers before the others in the weekend red box, he used to include eye-catching gimmicks. One was a specially commissioned cartoon of the Cabinet by Cummings of the Daily Express. Ministers were caricatured sitting around their table – all except for one, the Defence Secretary, Lord Carrington. He was pictured to one side, in ballet shoes, executing an elegant pirouette.
This was quite near the bone. Critics sometimes said that fast footwork had enabled Carrington to extricate himself from some tight corners. But this was not what Rothschild meant to say about his friend, or not only. He meant to suggest that among a fairly grey team following a ponderous leader, there was one figure a little set apart, stylish, witty, independent, always on the move: Peter Carrington.
There was, indeed, something restless about Carrington. He was a very good regular soldier (famously, he does not mention in his own memoir the MC he won at Nijmegen, which some thought should have been a VC). None the less, he was extremely critical of the military incompetence he witnessed, and left the army as soon as he could. He showed sharp intelligence in rescuing his own estates from debts and dereliction, usually doing the opposite to sage conventional advice, but country life was not enough.
He joined Churchill’s government as a junior agriculture minister but, like Christopher Lee, I rather doubt whether he ever actually joined the Conservative Party formally. He tried to resign the post over the once-famous Crichel Down affair, which was not really about ministers taking responsibility for mistakes by their officials, but about a department following a separate policy from that of the rest of the government. He accepted at a very young age the high commissionership to Australia – a far from conventional career move. Indeed, until the very end of his long life, his restless energy led him almost never to say “no” to any big job, public or private, however difficult, from Nato to Christie’s, from the GEC to the Balkans, so long as he was the boss. He had, as Harold Macmillan early observed, “nerve”.
Of course, the headlines at his death earlier this year at the age of 99 were principally about his resignation from the highest office he held, Foreign Secretary, after the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands in 1982. He was exactly right in his decision: whether he was to blame or not (and he felt himself badly served both by the intelligence services and by the embassy in Buenos Aires), he knew that we had to fight, and that we could not fight unless someone had paid the price of the failure to avoid fighting. John Nott, the perhaps more culpable but little-known Defence Secretary, would not have been a sufficient sacrifice; Carrington’s action was both honourable and necessary.
At Lady Thatcher’s 80th birthday party at a hotel by Hyde Park, I was standing near him as he stood down from a dais whence he had delivered an elegant tribute, and was about to slip away. Lady T grasped him by the elbow and said, shakily, “Don’t go, Peter. I never wanted you to go.”
Lee’s book is authorised, but not hagiographic. It is, though, a little disappointing: too long, and written in a curiously chatty style better suited to conversational reminiscence than a 576-page biography. Carrington’s own book is better written and tells you almost as much. Writing without much style about someone to whom style mattered grates.
Because as well as courage, Carrington did have style. That is why Mrs Thatcher liked him. He stood up to her, sometimes furiously, but he also made her laugh. Only he could have passed her a note after she was forced to listen in silence to Chairman Hua of China for 50 minutes without break, that said: “Prime Minister, you are talking too much as usual.”
He was not a rival, which helped. Lee suggests this was because he had never been in the House of Commons, but really it was because Carrington never sought and, therefore, never achieved a power base of his own. It would have been possible to imagine him creating such a thing, even without a seat in the Commons, if he had chosen to do so. He could have found allies against the hard Right, who hated him for “betraying” Ian Smith, the white Rhodesian leader, at the Lancaster House Agreement that paved the way for an independent Zimbabwe in 1979. I would have been a soldier in that army myself.
But here is the paradox: though Carrington devoted his whole life to public service, and was deeply loyal to the people he served with, whether they were his young squaddies in the Guards Armoured or his civil servants, he could not rid himself of a certain disgust at the techniques of mass democratic politics. The cliché is to describe him as a Whig, a lazy title given to every politician with inherited wealth nowadays. But Whigs are optimists: they believe that history has a direction and is on their side. Carrington was one of the most profoundly pessimistic men I have ever known. Almost every conversation began: “Aren’t things awful?” Usually, it wasn’t a joke.
Pessimism, about human nature, about the efficiency of bureaucracies, about one’s colleagues, puts you, if anywhere, in the Tory tribe. But tribal labels do not define Carrington well. Moral badges of honour do.
Tories have two dreadfully dangerous heroes, and emulation of both has done great damage. Disraeli glamorises politics as a game, a greasy pole, the climbing of which is an end in itself. Churchill is used to justify any wild and irresponsible action on the grounds that “Churchill was often hated and criticised”. Unfortunately, logic does not dictate that all you have to do to be Churchill is to be hated and criticised. Carrington’s stars were more securely fixed: serve your country, stick to ordinary morality, stand by your friends, never shirk a job because it is difficult or dangerous. His is a harder act to imitate: but we would be better off if more tried to do so.
William Waldegrave’s A Different Kind of Weather is published by Constable (£9.99).
Carrington by Christopher Lee
576pp, Penguin, £25. Call 0844 871 1514 to order for £20