Carington, Peter (1 of 1). The History of Parliament Oral History Project
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Interviewee's home, Buckinghamshire
Carrington, Peter, 1919- (speaker, male)
Greenwood, Mike, 1959- (speaker, male)
Part 1: Talks about family row that meant he was brought up for early years in Devon rather than in Bledlow. Returned to Bledlow after the war [00.47]. Father born in Australia. Speaks about Carington family history –started first provincial bank in 1650s. Forbear Robert Smith made Lord Carington in 1790s – regarded by other Lords as being “in Trade”. A lot of ancestors had been MPs –Tories and Liberals. Family quarrels over Reform Bill of 1832. Story of ancestor taking a horsewhip to an opponent. [04.35]. Family were Whigs until Lloyd George. Father was on Devon County Council after serving in trenches for 4 years, wounded twice; not in good health and died young. [06.20]. Politics not an important subject at home; he remembers Conservative candidate political meetings outside the house but not with enthusiasm. Strong Liberal tradition in Devon. However, the family tradition of serving as MPs meant that he was instinctively interested in politics [08.05] Young adulthood overshadowed by the war. Realized early on that war was coming. Joined army early because he didn’t know what else he wanted to do. Went to Sandhurst –no fun, odd training. Strong idea of what was coming in Europe. Only 20 years after First War, you can understand why politicians were trying to avoid war –Munich agreement was very popular at the time- he didn’t regard it as a very heroic episode. [12.44] Father’s death, inherited the title. More concerned with army commission. Effect of war on career. [13.45]. 1939 No equipment, no urgency. Example of Boyes antitank rifle. Disgraceful state of army. Hopeless British tanks compared with Germans. Surrounded by friends in regiment –made all the difference. Describes jaunt to Paris at Liberation. [17.31]. Fought in France, Belgium, Holland. “Liberated” German army wine store, took cases of champagne on his tank, then acquired a Mercedes sports car. [20.45]. Failure of operation Market Garden and suffering of Dutch population. [22.12] Impact of war on political career –Germany in ruins and misery. Spur to politics –partly to make sure Defence was in a better state than 1939. [23.50] Decided to get out of army fast –by taking his seat in House of Lords –“a dirty trick”. Took seat in 1945. [24.55] Didn’t equip himself for political life; recognized he wasn’t going to be PM from the House of Lords. Wanted to be useful. Surprised when Churchill offered him post as Parliamentary Secretary to Ministry for Agriculture in 1951 [25.45]. Worked on local County Council – a “fiefdom” –interesting to see how it worked e.g. Planning Committee preoccupied with Public Conveniences –very parochial affair. [26.10]. Taught you about public life. Also on War Agricultural committee. Also learned about the County of Bucks and about farming. First years in House of Lords -there had been a Labour landslide –ridiculous imbalance between numbers of Tory and Labour peers. Two people –Leader of Lords, Lord Addison, and leader of Conservatives, Lord Salisbury ensured that Chamber could do its job without frustrating will of the people. [29.30] Salisbury rules developed as a convention. Without it, the House of Lords would have been abolished [31.25]. Remembers ABCA –Army Bureau of Current Affairs run by Dick Crossman. Convinced not one of his guardsmen voted conservative. Churchill’s dominant personality [33.00]. Shock of Churchill’s defeat in 1945. Carington and his contemporaries began their careers in Opposition interesting, challenging –and fun. [35.05] Day to day working life –took seat in Robing Room –in use as the chamber of the Lords due to bomb damage of the Commons. No support, no phone or room; no expenses. Worked at home or in the Library –always helpful. [36.59] His contemporaries and their subsequent careers. No particular ambitions or career path –“one was busy” [37.50]. Comparison with Tony Benn (who renounced title) [38.25]. Had no wish to be Prime Minister. Could still do a useful job in the Lords. First appointment to office [39.36] Had been an Opposition Whip. 1951 given job in Ministry of Agriculture. Tells story of hearing about the appointment whilst out shooting –thought it was a joke. Impressed that Churchill phoned him.Views on the 6 Prime Ministers he has served under [41.18] –his favourite was Macmillan whom he thinks is under-rated [42.13]. Macmillan’s qualities. His kind of Conservative. There is a gap between those who fought in the war and those who entered politics later [43.10]. It made some of us get it wrong later e.g. Ted Heath having to deal with Glasgow shipyards redundancies –did a U turn. But Welfare State had made unemployment less awful. [45.15]. (Retake of rambling question) . The need to have empathy for people’s needs and still remain focused on policies. It didn’t impact so much on him –most of his jobs were not connected with domestic affairs [47.30]. He wouldn’t have enjoyed work in a domestic department. Interested in Defence, International Affairs –and Agriculture. Interest in international affairs as a result of the war 00.48.35. Role as High Commissioner for Australia 1956 –appointed by Alex Douglas Home to replace unpopular predecessor. Took a chance on him. Gained a different view of his own country from outside it. [50.40]. Was very ignorant. He liked the Australians, travelled widely. Canberra a tiny place full of civil servants and diplomats. Risk of being sidelined in political career but “so what, something always turns up” [53.05]. Australian looking more to America and South East Asia. Britain’s changing role in the world. Realisation of Britain’s decline set in later on [55.35] more obvious in last 15 years or so. He worries whether USA is going to recover. Attitude to Europe –we did rather well after the war [57.15]. It never occurred to him when we joined the EEC that we were on the way to a Federal Europe. Political career –everything is chance or luck. Not wildly ambitious. Next job was First Lord of the Admiralty -v interesting. Happy with exception of the Vassall spy case. [1.00.15] Keeping role in Lords going in parallel with Ministerial role. Relationships with House not affected by ministerial role in the days of hereditary peers. Cross Benchers not so numerous then. [1.02.17] Greta change was when Macmillan introduced Life Peers –when it was really good in Lords –nowadays it’s not so [1.03.00]. Worked on a committee on reform of the House of Lords –torn to bits by Enoch Powell and Tony Benn & Michael Foot –sank without trace [1.04.15]. House of Lords now is impossible –too many people in it, too many Life Peers; talk far too much. Opinion on Lords Reform/elected chamber “stupidest idea I’ve ever heard” [1.05.04]. Salisbury rules still respected. Parliament Act [1.07.30] –inevitable that it’s used. Reflects on likelihood of bill being put in this Parliament and the propriety of using the Parliament Act. Not having a constituency to deal with –less work 1.08.55. MPs might find it easier to keep in touch with people –tenuous argument he feels. How partisan was Lords? [1.10.00] Not much –he had friendships across the House then. Much worse now –Life Peers can be violently partisan and House is worse for it. Sad. Hard to see what you do in House of Lords now [1.11.35]. He would cut it in half –e.g. by age. Relations with party [1.12.41] Role of Whips in his day –with a two line whip members might attend and listen to the debate –then vote the other way! Independent-minded peers. Not so generally now. Even he has had to vote for Government recently when he thought they were wrong -shame! [1.14.00] (appears to change the story midway) . Chairman of Conservative Party -I was the wrong choice –easy to be Chairman when in opposition everyone’s united. In Government, you have to defend all the unpopular decisions e.g. during Three Day Week [1.16.15]. Found some people quite tiresome. Lucky to have had help from Jim Prior and Sarah Morrison. Public speaking important? No –not his favourite occupation. Losing office [1.18.35] Suddenly find yourself without job/secretary/car etc. You get over it. Leader of Opposition in Lords for years –pretty tedious. Family/private life [1.20.20] Lives not far from London so could get home quickly. You learn to balance it. Real hazard here is that you’re 5 miles from Chequers –Heath was the worst for calling him over to talk to him. Filling the gap when out of office [1.22.00] Important to find out about other things –pity that MPS don’t nowadays-they’d be better politicians; a recent development. People invited you on to various Boards e.g. RTZ –enabled him to travel to Africa and learn about e.g. Rhodesia problems. 1979 Appointed Foreign Secretary. Three main challenges: Rhodesia problem taking up too much time; issue of EC contributions; problem of Falkland Island [1.25.45] Rhodesia problem –issue of British subjects in the territory concerned. Suez Group violently opposed to Black majority rule. “Hang Carrington” campaign organized by a school friend [1.27.12]. Disagreeable, but we won. Cf French decolonization. We’ve changed as a country in the last years e.g. Princess Diana’s death (he calls it murder and then corrects himself) and the hysteria and emotional outbursts [1.29.50] Loss of stiff upper lip. Role of media –plays a bigger part now –more of it today and more influential. Wasn’t very good at the media. Relationship with Europe –[1.32.30] Thatcher determined to get a contribution from EC –decided to be tough. Some meetings were embarrassing and brutal. But it worked. After Falklands she could have led Europe but didn’t want to. Only trusted people whose mother tongue was English [1.34.45]. Tells Mitterand story. Views on Thatcher now. [1.36.10] V remarkable woman who knew what she wanted and determined to do it. Admirable for as long as you’re right! She fell down on Poll Tax. Hard to understand why people hate her-she turned us round. I told her when she got it wrong on Foreign affairs –she concentrated on domestic issues. Falkland invasion [1.38.23] Clear we had to do something about the Falklands –but had little to negotiate about. Right wing didn’t want lease-back. Left wing didn’t want to submit to a dictator. Thatcher not prepared to countenance a long lease-back. Intelligence people got it wrong about invasion. I shouldn’t have relied on it. [1.40.45]. Thatcher took a chance –but would have had her throat cut if she hadn’t tried to retake the Falklands. She deserves credit for her courage –helped her win the next election after being a v unpopular PM. Lord Carringon’s resignation [1.42.25] A mistake to go to war with public squabbling over who is responsible. Asked to stay but knew he was right to go –lanced the boil. Some other people were also responsible –won’t name them –but they stayed on. Everyone has to make up their own mind. [1.46.00] His successor –Francis Pymm –didn’t survive long –not her type of person. Warned her it would end on tears. Kept away from Lords for a bit. Then went to NATO for 4 years –he thinks Thatcher pushed his appointment as Secretary General [1.47.45]. Got on well with Americans. Still Cold War politics. Thatcher’s election victory, rise of SDP, Coalition politics Jenkins was a friend of his [1.50.15] –SDP won’t succeed. Trouble with Coalition Government is giving both sides “a bite to eat”. Disengagement of public from politics [1.52.30] 1945 politics were polarized, now there’s little difference –politics are less exciting today. Intrusion of media into private lives has put off people from entering politics –quality of people in politics has declined. Where are the big people today? Longest serving member of House of Lords –made a difference? Don’t think I’ve made much difference -second rank! What most proud of? Survival! Rhodesia has ended in tears. Desire to make a difference an important motive? Some people want to make a difference, others want to “be something” –neither for me –a sense of obligation, putting something back in a minor way. Optimistic about British democracy? A problem of old age is to think that things are worse than they really are! Never thought it was necessary to dislike someone because you disagree with them. Harder to do so today.
Life story interview with Lord Carrington (1919-), former Conservative Member of Parliament.