Lord Carrington: Watching from the very start

Posted On: 
31st May 2012

Already a government minister by the time of The Queen’s Coronation, Lord Carrington reflects on her reign, the challenges she has faced, and the Prime Ministers she has worked with

If any politician can pass judgment on the entirety of  The Queen’s 60 year reign, then it is surely, and perhaps only, Lord Carrington.

The Conservative peer first entered the House of Lords when George VI was still on the throne, and was already a junior minister in Winston Churchill’s final administration by the time of Elizabeth’s coronation. Sixty years on, the 92 year-old is the longest-serving member of the House of Lords and the last surviving member of the Cabinets which served under Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home.

Though less fond of the House of Lords these days – “I find it uncongenial; it’s different to what it was” – Lord Carrington is still a regular attendee, but today he is at home in Buckinghamshire, sitting in a room lined with what looks like every British political biography and memoir published in the last 50 years. Two dogs, Edward, named after Heath, and appropriately moody, and Norma Minor, are sleeping close by, as their owner, as bright and engaging as ever,  reflects on The Queen’s long reign.

He starts by recalling a moment which could have changed the Monarchy forever: the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936. “I remember it; I was a boy at school. We were all assembled in my house to listen to King Edward VIII’s speech when he abdicated,” Lord Carrington begins, before laughing at his reaction. “I’m rather ashamed at this really. I remember being deeply impressed at how he couldn’t go on without the woman he loved. If you’re 14 or something, I supposed you’re more likely to be impressed than when you’re slightly more sophisticated.”

Despite his adolescent admiration for the King’s commitment to romance, the then Peter Carrington also had concerns.“Even at that age I was worried that there was going to be a problem with the succession and so on, but it all went awfully smoothly. My God, we were lucky” he says, adding: “If the Duke of Windsor had stayed on I don’t think it would have been a very happy outcome.”

At the forefront of those politicians determined to convince the King to stay on the throne was Churchill himself, with the future wartime leader accused of political mischief-making.“Oh, but don’t you think that was just Churchill at his most romantic?” Lord Carrington interjects. “The King was the King… it was a misjudgment, but I’m sure it was loyalty. He was romantic. That’s what it was.”

Eight years later, Lord Carrington met the future Queen for the first time .“The very first appointment that she ever had was to be the Colonel of the Grenadiers. She came to inspect us at Hove, where we were all formed up, ready to go to Normandy for the invasion. This was 1944 – she was so self-possessed, so dignified, and did it so well. It was quite a tour de force for an 18-year-old to inspect a load of soldiers going to war. Very good she was – and has been ever since.”

George VI died in 1952. “She’d gone off to Kenya. It must have been a terrible shock to come back and find yourself being the Sovereign after the death of your father. It must have been awful for her. But she also rose to the occasion. It’s incredible. Nothing phases her.”

Over the next decade, the young Queen was dragged into two constitutional headaches, with both Anthony Eden and then Harold Macmillan accused of pushing a favoured successor – in Eden’s case Macmillan, and in Macmillan’s case Alec Douglas Home – on the Monarch, following their resignations as Prime Minister. Lord Carrington, however, refuses to accuse anyone of wrong-doing. “It’s all a long time ago”, he replies vaguely, before attempting a defence of the times. “It was still the magic circle, which by that time was untenable. In many ways you look back, and this sounds terribly reactionary... it was a quite a good way of doing things because the people who really mattered in the Cabinet or in the party were much more likely to know who was going to be a successful Prime Minister than people who don’t know and merely do it on the basis of either they read something in the paper or they were insulted by someone. But you could not go on with it, it was untenable, and Alec Douglas Home was quite right to change it.”

In 1968, however, plans, albeit half-baked, were hatched for a full-on constitutional coup. During Harold Wilson’s first term as Prime Minister, Cecil King, the owner of Mirror Group Newspapers, is said to have instigated a meeting with the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Solly Zuckerman and the Queen’s cousin Louis Mountbatten, in which King proposed that Wilson be overthrown and Mountbatten be installed as the head of a new government. Lord Carrington laughs at the idea. “He was a very strange man, Cecil King. He was a megalomaniac... he thought he really could operate and organise a coup. It took more than Cecil King to organise a coup in this country. Solly told him not be so silly, such an idiot. It all died without a murmur. Everybody thought it was crazy. He thought Harold Wilson was a spy, or a mole – poor Harold Wilson. Fanciful ideas. Oh dear…”

In the 1980s, the Prime Minister occupying Downing Street was Margaret Thatcher, someone with whom The Queen is said – according to some journalists – to have endured a strained relationship.

“Who am I to know? I know she’s a terrific Royalist – she was very respectful of The Queen, she minded her Ps and Qs”, Lord Carrington replies, refusing to be drawn, but by the 1990s, strained relations between The Queen and her subjects were undeniable. Refusing to leave Balmoral and address the British people following the death of Prince Diana in 1997, The Queen found herself labelled as out of touch.

Lord Carrington, who describes himself as brought up to be “very stiff upper lip – you didn’t bellyache about things… today everybody bursts into tears or kisses each all the time”, believes that 15 years on the British public’s reaction to Diana’s death has left them “slightly ashamed of themselves – I think they’re beginning to feel they behaved pretty weirdly – I hope so anyway...”

The Queen, he adds, was right to resist making a public address. “The Queen was brought up... my generation, stiff upper lip, and when Princess Diana died her concern was that it was, in a way, a family affair, that she had to look after the grandchildren. It wasn’t a sort of weep-in for everyone to join in. People were shocked by that, I think quite wrongly. She was doing what she was brought up to do. It was a family bereavement and she was looking after the children.”

Two years later, another shift to the constitution – the abolishment of all but 92 hereditary peers – removed the right of the Royal princes to sit in the House of Lords. Thirteen years on, Lords reform is back on the agenda, but plans for a wholly or partially elected second chamber leaves the Upper House’s longest-serving member unimpressed.

“You can’t reform it actually. Well you can, but it will end in tears. The thing is that nobody is agreed on what you should put in its place. And one of the reasons why no-one is agreed is that all of them, 100 per cent, talk about the composition and who should sit in it, but no-one ever says what they want it to do. You should start on the second basis of what you want the second chamber to do and then decide who would be the right people to sit in it, and not the other way on. What is the point of getting people elected to a chamber which has got no further or greater or better powers than the present House of Lords? You couldn’t give them any more powers because the House of Commons wouldn’t allow it. So who would want to be elected to the chamber and why? And what would they do? And anyway, they’d all be party politicians. Is that a good idea? Much worse than now.”

That said, Lord Carrington, who estimates that there were around 17 Labour peers to 400 Tories when he took his seat in the Lords, calls for a degree of reform. “You’ve got to do something, you can’t go on having 1000 people in the House of Lords. It will be 1500 unless they do something about it. And so you get less and less distinguished people being made life peers because, in the nature of things, very, very distinguished people don’t really exist except in very small quantities. When Harold Macmillan first started life peers, they really were distinguished people. Quintin Hogg once said to me: ‘once you take a brick out of the fabric of the House of Lords it will collapse.’ And it’s going to; that’s the way it’s going on.”

As for The Queen’s regular appearances in the Upper House for the state opening of Parliament, Lord Carrington believes they remains a valuable part of the constitution. “I think a little bit of pageantry is a good thing. We do it very well. It would be a pity if all that goes. I really do think the idea of dumbing everything down is a mistake.”

With the interview drawing to a close, I ask whether Lord Carrington could identify The Queen’s favourite Prime Minister. “I don’t think she should dream of having a favourite”, he replies. “Nobody has any idea what she thinks about people – it would be awful if they did. She’s the absolute soul of discretion.” In fact, he adds, “I don’t think The Queen has put a foot wrong – very remarkable after 60 years.”

It would also be a fair description of Lord Carrington’s long political career, with even his decision to quit as Foreign Secretary following the Argentine invasion of the Falklands in 1982 invariably described as the last honourable political resignation.

“Bored with all that”, Lord Carrington interrupts, but when asked what he considers a highlight of his political career, a mood which has been upbeat throughout the interview, briefly dips. “You can’t win, whatever you do in politics. Well, very unlikely to anyway. You must be very careful when you get to my age, if you ever do, not to think everything is awful. But I do wonder… Where are the Harold Macmillans? Where are the Roy Jenkins? Quintin? The Labour government of 1945?  All these giants of the past? They don’t seem to exist. [Today’s politicians] are all quite clever, but they don’t have the personality of them.”

It is a rare moment for an elder statesman who these days prefers to keep his opinions, in public anyway, to himself. “I’m very old. An old gentleman making speeches is a frightful nuisance for everyone to have to listen to. It should be left to younger people”, he explains, adding: “Nor do I think you should go around giving people advice.” For someone whose experience of public life, and first hand knowledge of British political history, stretches further back than The Queen herself, in Lord Carrington’s case I’m not sure I agree.

LORD CARRINGTON ON THE PMs WHO NEVER WERE

“Heseltine would have made a very good Prime Minister. He was a leader. Rab [Butler] would not have been good. He was indecisive – but he was the most delightful man. Willie [Whitelaw] was a wonderful operator, a dear friend of mine, [but] he’d have been a very bad prime minister – I don’t think he had the edge. Quintin [Hogg]…if he could have curbed his ebullience and his histrionics a bit. People thought he was a bit unreliable, he had bursts of anger and so on, but he was terribly good fun. He was a very clever, good man.”

LORD CARRINGTON ON PRINCE PHILIP

 “I think people have come to recognise what a good job Prince Philip has done. He’s worked hard, and I think he’s very funny – I don’t think his jokes have offended anybody... except the press.”