In a class of his own, with a touch of finesse: what modern day politicians could learn from Lord Carrington.

Lord Carrington, one of the last surviving British politicians to have served in the Second World War, was the oldest member of the House of Lords at the time of his death

(Image: Getty Images)

Louise Clare (University of Manchester)

Lord Peter Carrington, who passed away on 9th July, 2018, remained for the rest of his life after 1982 most commonly associated with resignation. As Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Foreign Secretary Carrington’s watch oversaw the 2nd April 1982 disembarkation of Argentine troops onto the Falkland Islands, an invasion which led to a war that he took the responsibility for not spotting.

Regardless of the fact that many in Britain thought that the Islands were located somewhere off the coast of Scotland prior to April 1982, the modal perception has always been that Carrington and the Foreign Office misjudged the Argentines, were caught off guard, and thus unaware of any impending action. In the immortal words of The Times, Carrington and the Foreign Office were accused of attempting to ‘sell the [Falkland] islanders down the River Plate’, not least through various leaseback proposals to Argentina over the Islands’ sovereignty.[1]

Those proposals had already culminated in Foreign Office Minister Nicholas Ridley being savaged in the House of Commons in December 1980, to the extent that: ‘[…] Mr. Ridley was left in no doubt that whatever Machiavellian intrigues he and the Foreign Office may be up to, they will come to nothing if they involve harming a hair on the heads of the islanders.’[2] It was true that the Falklands featured as number 242 on the Foreign Office’s priority list and that Carrington had described the Falklands matter as being “‘trivial beyond belief’”.[3]

Nevertheless, Carrington’s understanding of the complexity of the situation at the time was more often than not underestimated, and continues to be so. Little mention is made of his and British Ambassador to Argentina, Anthony Williams’ warnings about impending Argentine action, even though the Falkland Islands Review Report of 1983 in the aftermath of the War revealed concerns that had been expressed as early as May 1981.[4] In October 1981, Williams had issued a chilling warning that the Falklands issue was ‘a political time bomb- with the fuse in Argentine hands and only too likely to reach explosion point in 1983/84’.[5]  Failure to act, Williams suggested and Carrington endorsed, was because of political reasons and the power of the Falkland Islands Lobby at the time, not the Foreign Office’s underestimation of the potential severity of the situation.

Crucial to the Argentine misperceptions of British disinterest in the Islands was Defence Minister John Nott’s 1981 defence cuts, and the planned withdrawal of British ice-breaker HMS Endurance. As early as June 1981, Carrington had spotted HMS Endurance’s symbolic significance and had minuted Nott stating ‘any reduction would be interpreted by both Islanders and the Argentines as a reduction in our commitment to the Islands and in our willingness to defend them, and would attract strong criticism from supporters of the Islanders in the United Kingdom’.[6] Further warnings followed but Carrington ended up being the one who was overruled despite sending minutes to Nott throughout 1981 and 1982.

Carrington saw the threat as real even if he did not see the Falklands as a realistic part of the Realpolitik game in the late Cold War era. Despite this record of Foreign Office warnings, it was Carrington who resigned when the crisis broke and the Foreign Office who bore the blame for ‘missing’ the signals about Argentine intentions, which had partly been induced by Nott’s cuts.       

Peter Carrington’s death at the age of nighty- nine brings this history once again to the fore.  His previous embroilment in the Crichel Down Affair did not overshadow his later career nor his ability in the subsequent posts he held. But, on this occasion, his resignation over the Falklands Crisis was a matter of honour and principle. Carrington’s adeptness in his field allowed him to assess the complexities and intricacies of Anglo-Argentine negotiations, alerting him to Argentine intentions early on. He listened to the advice of his experienced diplomatic staff, clearly taking their views into account whilst forming his assessment. His labelling as a ‘wet’ in Mrs. Thatcher’s Cabinet did not impede the Prime Minister from recognising his talents in this field. Indeed, Carrington was not in the Conservative Cabinet by birth right, or what in the present might take the form of window dressing or box-ticking to help explain some cabinet positions. As previous Prime Ministers had, Thatcher recognised Carrington’s merits, many of which politicians today from across the Houses could learn and borrow from.

The resignation of Carrington was not accompanied with a fanfare- there was no real or prolonged scandal to be conceived. Unlike many of our career-driven modern day politicians, Peter Carrington did not allow the matter of honour to be conceded to career ambitions. One of the war-time generation, he did not shirk his ministerial duties, nor did he pass the buck or shy away. He bore the blame for the crisis which he had warned repeatedly of on numerous occasions. His merits and matter of principle and honour were rewarded when he was made Secretary General of NATO. Despite later unsuccessful mediation attempts regarding Yugoslavia, his negotiator and non-aggressive style allowed his contribution to this field to continue.

 

Notes

[1] Penelope Tremayne, Letters to the Editor, ‘Sovereignty of the Falklands’, The Times, 8th December 1980,  1.

[2] Hugh Hoyes, The Times’ Parliamentary Correspondent, ‘Commons is united by suspicion of Ridley’, 3rd December 1980,  4.

[3] Peter Beck, The Falkland Islands as an international problem (London: Routledge, 1988), 7.

[4] Falkland Islands Review-Report of a Committee of Privy Counsellors, Chairman: The Right Honourable The Lord Franks, OM, GCMG, KCB, CBE (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1983), 24.

[5] Margaret Thatcher Foundation, ‘Falklands: UK Ambassador to Buenos Aires letter to Fearn (“Falkland Islands Strategy”) [“In effect, as I understand it, the decision is to have no strategy at all beyond a general Micawberism”]’, 2nd October 1981; available online at <http://www.margaretthatcher.org/&gt; (viewed 31st May 2017.)

[6] Margaret Thatcher Foundation, ‘Falklands: Carrington minute to Nott (“Defence Programme”) [comment on HMS Endurance: “Any reduction [in UK Defence presence in Falklands] would be interpreted by both the Islanders and the Argentines as a reduction in our commitment to the Islands and in our willingness to defend them”]’, 5th June 1981, available online at <https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/118495> (viewed 8th June 2017.)

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