Why do the British turn to the Germans in their moments of European trouble? It never works. When Jacques Delors conceived his single currency plans, Mrs Thatcher over-relied on Karl Otto Pöhl at the Bundesbank to squash them. Dr Pöhl preferred to side with Helmut Kohl. When Britain was struggling to stay in the ERM in the late summer of 1992, the Major government put faith in what they thought were German promises to help them out. These failed to materialise. When David Cameron sought a new EU deal which would win him the 2016 referendum, he placed his greatest hopes in Angela Merkel, who offered him concessions so feeble that even he quickly gave up trying to sell them. Last week, Mrs May flew to Berlin. There is nothing wrong, of course, with trying to reach over the head of Brussels to do some bilateral diplomacy with a great European power, but what seems to have happened is that she shared her forthcoming negotiating plan with Angela Merkel before unveiling it to cabinet colleagues at Chequers. She even confided more in the German chancellor than in her then Brexit secretary, David Davis. This slight contributed to his resignation. At Chequers, I hear, one of her responses to suggested changes in her blueprint was to say, ‘No, that’s not possible, because I’ve already cleared it [the existing text] with Mrs Merkel.’ You do not have to be anti-German to think this a foolish way of behaving. You have only to reverse the situation and imagine how odd we would think any Germans who came asking us for help with their political problems. On Brexit, the Germans are against us — not out of malice, but because they are determined to see their national interest and the EU interest as the same thing, whereas we see them almost as opposites.
Lord Carrington, who has just died, may well have been longer in public life than any non-royal person ever. He took his seat in the House of Lords in 1946 (having already won the MC at Nijmegen in 1944), and never really retired until ill health confined him 70 years later. Hereditary privilege, I suppose, put him in; but what kept him there, giving him office under six prime ministers, as well as making him high commissioner to Australia, secretary-general of Nato etc? The obvious answer would be that, as someone who could not be elected, he was like the eunuch in the seraglio. Certainly prime ministers were disposed to trust him, in part because they knew he couldn’t have their job. Certainly, too, he had a strong sense of public service. But this does not explain his rather unaristocratic tenacity and ambition or his undoubted ability.
I must admit that when I first met Peter Carrington, in 1973, I did not like him. He, aged 53 or 54, and a cabinet minister in the Heath government, was the guest of the Eton Political Society. I, aged 17, was its secretary. At drinks with the Provost after his talk, he launched into a classic Whiggish defence of moderate Conservatism as the way of ensuring that sensible people run the country. More priggish than Whiggish, I attacked him for complacency. As I took him out to his car to leave, he said, ‘I say, are you usually so rude to your guests?’ I took this as a haughty put-down from a man who never wanted his idées reçues challenged, but when I came to know him quite well 20 years later, I realised that I had mistaken his tone. He had been teasing me, as he teased almost everyone throughout his life. If only I had not been such a pipsqueak, I would have seen that his intention was friendly, even kind. His style of humour carried him through a great deal of public life — relieving boredom or tension, cutting through solemnity. He sometimes did this by writing accomplished comic verses in meetings and handing them to the person sitting next to him. He made anyone who talked to him feel a co-conspirator against a ridiculous world. ‘Isn’t everything awful?’ was his most common greeting. The words expressed the pessimism of his intellect. His grin as he spoke them expressed the optimism of his will. The Peter Carrington view of the world included a defeatism about the possibilities for civilisation which, when allowed to run the country — as it did to some extent under Macmillan and Heath — had quite a bad effect. He tended to confuse democracy with populism, and so to dislike both. He was so accustomed to national decline that he almost welcomed it. His effect on the conduct of the country’s business, however, especially its business abroad — brisk yet easy, conciliatory yet tough, quick-witted, commonsensical, worldly wise — was benign, and is irreplaceable.
He was also very alert, even in his nineties. On the day after the first volume of my Thatcher biography was published in 2013, I bumped into Peter in a club. ‘Hey!’ he called out, having already reached the footnote on p.453, ‘I never said Mrs Thatcher was a “f***ing stupid, petit bourgeois woman”. I never use that word.’ ‘Oh dear,’ I said, ‘I’m afraid that’s what Clive Whitmore [Mrs Thatcher’s former principal private secretary] told me.’ ‘Well, if Clive says that, he’s a f***ing — oh, I never use that word…’ Then he burst out laughing. Typically, although he had been so cross with her, he became a long-lasting friend of Mrs Thatcher, and made the speech at her 80th birthday party.
Friends recently showed me that my iPhone has a device which counts my steps. Since then, I check its findings most days. When I am in London, I average about 11,000 steps a day; when in the country only 8,000. This is the reverse of what I had expected. Although such information is oddly interesting, it is also a bit intimidating to be so closely monitored, rather like the knowledge that God numbers every hair of one’s head. Probably better to follow Newman: ‘I do not ask to see/ The distant scene: one step enough for me.’
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