Christopher Lee: How politicians have changed since Lord Carrington’s day

Written by Christopher Lee on 5 September 2018 in Opinion

Margaret Thatcher's foreign secretary, who died this year, was the last of his kind.

Peter Carrington’s housemaster at Eton, J.C. Butterwick, thought him not bright enough for Oxford. Butterwick thought a boy not quite up to academic scratch could farm, try the city or, if all failed, the army.

Carrington whose family had advised politicians since Pitt the Younger and played with royalty since the 1860s went to Sandhurst, was commissioned into the Grenadiers and won a Military Cross defending a bridge in World War II. At the end of that affair he decided being a general would be a grand possibility, but he’d had enough of war (he would later be defence secretary and head of NATO) and there was an obligation in his privilege of inheritance to take his seat in the Lords – go into politics.

All this is why friends knew Carrington as an honourable man, not because he resigned after his FCO missed the signals that President Galtieri was about to order the Argentinean invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982. To Carrington, a question of honour was built into background, a code that balanced his life and that of his wife Iona and her family. It was an ancient honour that has no definition nor parallels. It simply is.

In Carrington’s day (1979-1982) the role of the foreign secretary was different. It was certainly a more powerful role in drafting British foreign policy. Thatcher changed that. I seem to remember we were in Washington and Mrs T was to meet Ronald Reagan, who had a set and strict policy on the importance of Israel in American Middle East thinking. The PM turned on Carrington first thing in the morning prior to her White House meeting. She demanded that he redesigned British policy on Israel.  She said he did not understand that her constituency included many Jewish families.

Carrington was furious. He told Thatcher that if she thought he was going to change British foreign policy just to hold her Finchley seat then she had better get herself another foreign secretary because he would not be used that way. He got up, left and slammed the door on the way out. He meant what he said.

The important point here was Carrington’s assumption that he would draft foreign policy. Thatcher did not trust the Foreign Office and believed that they were mostly camels (ie they supported Arab countries over Israel) and were soft on Europeans.  She saw the Foreign Office as elitist and from good breeding.  She was convinced that a man like Carrington would be too much at home in the FO, which was partly true.  He was among friends, even relatives. But she appointed him. (Ted Heath turned it down).

In fact, after a year in Number Ten, Thatcher started to take over the role of the Foreign Office.  Private negotiations were fewer. Certainly she took over European relations. Moreover, after Carrington’s going in April 1982, global politics were shifting in a way that Thatcher and her successors had more reason to take over direct contacts with other countries and leaders. America was heading to the post-Reagan period of traditional values and threats to end nuclear deterrence. Europe was in a transitional period and no one cared about Africa once Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in 1979 – Carrington’s doing.

None of the thirteen Foreign Secretaries since Carrington has had a major task outside of European Affairs. In much beyond the EU, the Prime Minister has assumed a governing role. Curiously, the Foreign Office seems the right office, above all others, where the distinction of an honourable role means the foreign secretary carries that identification as an assumption.

It could be a Victorian hangover when the mystery of the British lands abroad – at one time a quarter of the world population in the empire – were looked after by the Colonial Office and the Foreign Office and the ministers appeared to know secrets.  They knew where places were in the world and how the British got them and by what rights and promises kept them. They were the keepers of British secrets and therefore until modern times the holders of the great offices of India Secretary, Colonial Secretary and foreign secretary always gave the impression of walking in sensitive corridors. The assumption that these men came from aristocratic breeding was good enough and acceptable.

Among them, Carrington and his ancestral sense of honour.  With his going it all changed. No other foreign secretary would sit upstairs. When a Foreign Minister spoke it still reflected a time past of greatness. Fourteen other countries out of the 53 Commonwealth nations were still ruled by the Queen.  The foreign secretary was more than a minister, he or she would have the aura of an envoy of something the rest of us could only be in awe by our ignorance.

Even Margaret Thatcher did not know where Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) was when she became PM.  But Carrington did. When he went it changed. It was a time of Thatcherism as its powerful best. She was not impressed by her civil service and was impatient of her Commons.  The Commons wilted before her.

Carrington asked who stepped where once the lions had trod in both Houses? He saw the Lords crammed with too many who had nothing new to offer.  There was no longer a sense of visiting the chamber when a distinguished speaker was about to rise. Heseltine, he thought, would have something to say. Ashdown yes.  Waldegrave certainly. In the Commons, the lions no longer roared. When one came to rise, there were a few (Waldegrave, Salisbury – even when he did not agree with them) who nodded at the sense heard, but Ken Clarke was probably the last of the Parliamentary pride and anyway, the issues were so decided that there was nothing much in debate.

There was no rush to the galleries to hear a new Castle, Powell, or Foot, or Cook.   Just ordinary people, some nice, with nothing new to say and their names forgotten before they’d even sat down. The sketch writers struggled. Yet what disturbed Carrington more, and which he let on about, during school lunches at White’s, was the lack of importance in a speech. Few expected a speech to make a Member think. Speeches were predictable and were probably more important for the local newspaper editor than the sum of Parliamentary thought.

He thought Brexit a good example where Members had no courage enough to declare that something was rotten in the debate and procedure. He thought it clear enough to those outside the House other than the fully committed to whatever went wrong to Brexit that even if the idea were right, the way of going about it was leaderless and irrelevant. One example was the statement by Jacob Rees-Mogg that Britain was unlikely to see a profit from Brexit for half a century. No one made anything of it. No debate. No one really bothered. Nothing that could be said to challenge the PM and therefore hot needles from Chief Whip followed by deselection. There is nothing on Labour benches – Labour no longer does front-line politics.

So there we have it. Carrington’s gradual mood was that the great speeches, the positions, the lions that roared caught little attention. What had changed, certainly in the Commons, was that these people and events had slipped away because even with Brexit the House no longer had passion – yet Brexit was a campaign to restore Parliament’s passion and authority.  It was as if Westminster had come upon a dominating issue but no one knew what to say other than a few set phrases without definitions.

In one of our last meetings this year, a good bit of lamb at Bledlow, he was rather vague about issues and who spoke and said what. He paused and said it was probably always thus although, he thought, when the Cabinet started to leave after a Number Ten meeting the chances were that apart from four of them, the TV viewer could not name the other twenty. None of stature to roar.

Not one likely to grab the mace from the dispatch box in the Chamber. No big beast with passion to lift it. We wondered if the public remember who was the last front bencher to do that. We thought not.  It was a solemn lunch.




Christopher Lee is author of Carrington – An Honourable Man, published by Penguin on 6 September.  He previously wrote the award-winning BBC Radio 4 history of Britain, This Sceptred Isle. 

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