An Honorable Man
London: Viking, 2018
Hardcover. 562 pages. ISBN 978-0670916467. £25
Reviewed by Charles Giovanni Vanzan Coutinho
Peter Alexander Rupert Carrington, 6th Baron Carrington, KG, GCMG, CH, MC, PC, DL, was in the memorable words of Harold Macmillan when discussing Lord Carrington’s predecessor as Conservative Foreign Secretary, Lord Home, ‘an example of the old governing class at its best’. From High Commissioner to Australia, to First Lord of the Admiralty, to second in command at the Foreign Office under R.A. Butler, to Defence and Energy Secretary and Party Chairman under Edward Heath, to Foreign Secretary under Margaret Thatcher, Lord Carrington swept the boards in terms of posts under every Conservative prime minister from Churchill to Thatcher. A unique example of political longevity. Upended by the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands in April 1982, Carrington still managed to carve out a post-political career as Secretary-General of NATO, chairman of the Victoria & Albert Museum, chairman of the auction house Christies, Chancellor of the Order of the Garter and finally, in his early seventies, was chairman of the European Union’s peace conference to settle the Yugoslavian war of the early 1990s.
Notwithstanding this wealth of experience, both public and private, Lord Carrington has oddly enough not been subject to a Life of any sort. The result perhaps of his only passing away in mid-2018. Now this vacuum has been partially remedied by writer Christopher Lee’s official biography, titled Carrington: An Honorable Man. The book, which uses Carrington’s private papers, provides at times an insightful and unclouded view of Carrington’s life, from his birth into an ennobled banking family (under Pitt the Younger), to his years at Eton, Sandhurst and service in the Second World War in the Grenadier Guards, winning a military cross. Happily married to an unusually, intellectual and intelligent woman (for her – his class that is). Lee ably uses both the private papers as well as (it would appear) numerous conversations with Carrington and his family to provide the reader to an usual degree with a view of the private Carrington, underneath the aristocratic grandee. The man who confessed to the author that notwithstanding all of his years of service to six Tory Prime Ministers, he “Always hated the Conservative Party….Nothing made me hate it more than being chairman of it. Individuals members all right. Collective so awful” .
Additionally, Lee provides the reader with insight as to why for example Carrington passed on Oxford and went straight into Sandhurst and the Guards, even though, as Carrington admitted in retrospect, his preference for a career would have not been the army but the diplomatic corps. Quitting the army in late 1945, having become the Sixth Baron, upon his father’s early demise in 1938, Carrington went into politics before the age of thirty. Unfortunately, once the book commences discussing Carrington’s political career, ‘disappointment’ is the best word that can be used to describe Lee’s treatment. It is clearly evident that Lee’s command of the post-1945 world of British politics leaves a lot to be desired. Simply put, he is at times completely at sea in his discussion of the offices that Carrington held and the political and policy background to the same. Which explains the seemingly enormous number of errata which litter the text. Such as: Harold Macmillan was not an “Edwardian Aristocrat” ; the cost of the rearmament programme of 1951 was 4.7 billion not "4.7 million pounds" ; Lord Salisbury resigned in 1957 not 1956 ; Carrington was not "Foreign Minister to R.A. Butler” ; Sir Nicholas Henderson was not "private secretary" to Carrington ; Christopher Soames was never "Defence Minister" ; Juan Peron was not alive in 1976 . Et cetera.
Also, the book suffers from a failure to explore or at least inform the reader about such things as: how wealthy exactly was Carrington upon his accession to the Barony? We are informed that the estate was encumbered and that lots of ready money was not readily available, but precisely what did that mean exactly? Lee does not tell us. Similarly, as Lee does not use or employ Cabinet or other governmental papers, or indeed any papers from any private collection other than Carrington’s own, we are a bit at sea as to why Carrington was picked for any of the major offices that he was appointed to: Defence, Energy, Party Chairman and Foreign Secretary. In the case of the latter it is allegedly the case that Carrington was only given the job because Edward Heath refused Thatcher’s offer of it. From reading Lee’s book, one would not know if this is true or not. And while Lee does use Carrington’s private papers and personal interviews to give the reader some idea of the tensions in the Thatcher-Carrington relationship, Lee singularly fails to bring out the fact that Carrington was widely regarded as a tremendous success as Foreign Secretary in the months leading up to his resignation. In the words of Sir Nicholas Henderson, Carrington was the “star of the government, carrying more weight in Cabinet than anyone else and an outstanding Foreign Secretary”(1). From reading Lee’s book, one would not know any of this. And while Lee’s chapter dealing with the Falklands crisis is to some extent well delineated and illustrates both the pre-crisis and the crisis well from Carrington’s perspective, one is astonished that Lee fails to cite or for that matter have read, Sir Lawrence Freedman’s official history(2). To conclude, at best, Lee’s biography will serve as a valuable source for a future, first-rate life of this most interesting and talented man who perhaps has reason to be called: ‘the last Whig Grandee’.
(1) Henderson, Sir Nicholas. Mandarin : The Diaries of an Ambassador, 1969-1982 (1994) : 450. See also page 340 and passim.
(2) Freedman, Sir Lawrence. The Official History of the Falklands Campaign, Volume I : The Origins of the Falklands War (2005).
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