I first met Peter Carrington through a mutual friend, Robert Runcie the former Archbishop of Canterbury. They were good friends and shared a sense of humour. Though from different backgrounds they shared two things in common – both served in the Guards (Carrington in the Grenadiers and Robert in the Scots) and both won MCs for bravery. Their friendship was forged in wartime experience and tested, literally, in battle. I remember Lord Carrington saying to me: “We were quite surprised when Robert became a clergyman. We’d seen him in action. It’s quite wrong to label Robert as wet and indecisive. In the army we knew him as one of the toughest and most able of tank commanders.” Years later when Runcie was being attacked by some in Margaret Thatcher’s government for commissioning the Faith In The City Report it was Carrington, and Willie Whitelaw who also served in the Scots Guards and won an MC, who defended Runcie the most robustly. Friendships forged in adversity tends to transcend passing political squalls.
Peter Carrington belonged to that most distinguished generation of politicians and public servants – who served their country through war and in peace with courage, purpose, and principle. He is, perhaps, most famous for his resignation as Foreign Secretary at the time of the invasion of the Falkland Islands. He did so as a matter of principle. Few really thought he was to blame and most regretted his departure from government. Years later when William Hague and the then Viscount Cranborne (now Lord Salisbury and Chairman of Reaction) fell out over Tony Blair’s House of Lords reform he tried to mediate between the two. The extraordinary fact is though that Carrington had been continuously involved in front line day-to-day politics from 1951. It is true, of course, that he was hugely helped by the fact that he was an hereditary peer and he never had to worry about troubling the electorate by asking them for a vote, but in an extraordinary way this makes his longevity in politics even more impressive. He succeeded in serving every Conservative Prime Minister from Winston Churchill to Margaret Thatcher in government because of his ability.
Mrs Thatcher’s continuing high regard for him found practical expression in her successfully asking NATO to appoint him Secretary-General. As a decorated soldier he carried credibility with the organisation’s military chiefs. As a former senior politician he carried authority with their political masters. Few have served such a successful four-year term in that job.
At various stages in his life he also pursued a successful business career, was a landowner and manager, served as President of the Pilgrims Society, was Chancellor of the Order of the Garter, and presided over international talks about the break-up of Yugoslavia.
It was by any standards a remarkable life of achievement and service. Above all and throughout it all he conducted himself with a thoughtful, humorous self-restraint that meant people trusted and liked him in equal measure – this, perhaps, was the secret of why he was such a successful public figure over nearly seven decades.