Lord Carrington, who died last week in his hundredth year, witnessed and shaped much of the international politics of the second half of the twentieth century. Less well known is his intimate connection with Australia.
Carrington was born in London the month the Treaty of Versailles was signed. He lived to see the Trump Presidency. He fought with valour in the Second World War – in his memoirs, he modestly omitted mention of the fact that he was awarded the MC – and when peace came, turned his back on the leisured life of a landowning aristocrat in favour of the rigours of politics. Although his political roots were Whig and Liberal (his forebears had served in Gladstone’s administrations), he became an active Conservative peer.
He was the last man alive to have served under Winston Churchill. Appointed to the modest post of Parliamentary Secretary in the Department of Agriculture after the 1951 election, he would rise, in the decades that followed, to hold increasingly higher offices under every Conservative Prime Minister from Churchill to Thatcher: First Lord of the Admiralty under Harold Macmillan, Defence Secretary under Edward Heath, Foreign Secretary under Margaret Thatcher. In the 1960s and 1970s, he led the Tories in the House of Lords. Although essentially an old-school wet, Thatcher relied heavily upon his advice; as an hereditary peer with no aspirations to the premiership, she could trust his loyalty while benefiting from his wisdom.
The dramatic circumstances in which he left Thatcher’s government in 1982, although a personal setback, came in retrospect to be seen as one of his finest moments. The Foreign Office failed to anticipate the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands. This was seen, at least initially, as a national humiliation. Carrington considered that, as a matter of honour, he should adhere to the old-fashioned view of ministerial responsibility, and resign. Thatcher sought to dissuade him; he insisted. In his memoir Reflect on Things Past, he described his reasons simply and unselfservingly:
It was not a sense of culpability that led me to resign. …[T]he whole of our country felt angry and humiliated. I felt the same myself. British territory had, without warning, been invaded… Inhabitants of a British colony – men and women of British blood – had been taken over against their will. …Shock and fury were felt throughout Britain, and in those circumstances… it is right, in my judgment, that there must be a resignation. The nation feels that there has been a disgrace. Someone must have been to blame. The disgrace must be purged. The person to purge it should be the minister in charge. That was me. …The anger of the British people and parliament at the Argentine invasion of the Falklands was a righteous anger, and it was my duty and fate to do something to assuage it; the rest was done by the brave sailors, soldiers and airmen, too many of whom laid down not office but their lives.
Although he described his departure from the Foreign Office as one of the saddest days of his life, he was not sidelined for long. Two years later, he was recalled to become the Secretary-General of NATO. During most of the Reagan years, Carrington – with much greater experience than any American or, for that matter, British statesman – was instrumental to shaping the West’s adjustment to the great upheavals which saw the Cold War’s end. If ever there was a time when Britain most excelled in its postwar role of playing Athens to America’s Rome, this, surely, was it.
Throughout all these years, in an unadvertised but important way, Lord Carrington was a friend of Australia at the heart of Britain’s political elite. His Australian connections were deep. His great-uncle became Governor of New South Wales in 1882. The governor’s brother migrated to join him three years later, married a grazier’s daughter, and had one son, Rupert, Carrington’s father. Rupert went to Melbourne Grammar, where he was a contemporary of Bruce and Casey, then returned to Britain shortly before the First World War.
No doubt it was because of these family connections that when, in 1956, Carrington was offered the position of High Commissioner to Australia, he decided to take a detour from his political career and accept. With his wife and young family, he became the second occupant of Westminster House in Forrest (described in his memoirs as ‘a white, green-roofed house which resembled a golf club house in the Home Counties.’) The years of his High Commissionership (1956-1959) coincided with the golden years of the Menzies government; predictably, they got on very well. Some years later, after he had returned to active politics in the United Kingdom, Carrington was instrumental in persuading Menzies and the then British Prime Minister, Alec Douglas-Home, to form the Britain-Australia Society, of which he remained the titular president until his death. He was a frequent and popular visitor to the Australian High Commissioner’s residence, Stoke Lodge, where he is still remembered fondly by the staff.
I met Lord Carrington only once. It was 2003; as an eager backbencher, I was keen to meet and learn from great figures of the past. I wrote to him, and a warm reply came back, saying that he would be delighted to give me lunch when I came to London.
When I met him at his club, White’s, he was not the intimidating presence I expected: the first thing that struck me were his cheerfulness and irreverent humour. He offered me a pre-luncheon drink; when he paid at the Bar in cash I said (perhaps rudely) I was surprised there wasn’t an honour system. His face broke into a broad smile. ‘Dear boy, this is the aristocrats’ club; you wouldn’t trust this lot!’ Then over lunch, he gave me an avuncular masterclass on international politics over the previous five decades and the personalities that shaped it.
Shortly after my own appointment as High Commissioner began, I wrote to him to renew the acquaintance. A message came from his son Rupert saying that his father was too ill to accept my offer of lunch, but how much he appreciated the fact that I had written to him. He died a few weeks later.
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