The British political figure Peter Carrington, sixth Baron Carrington (born 1919), became a major figure in Conservative politics during the second half of the 20th century. After occupying major ministerial portfolios, Carrington was named secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1984, and he served in that capacity until stepping down 1988.
Born into princely surroundings in Buckinghamshire, England, on June 6, 1919, Carrington was assured a high position in Britain by his pedigree. He was the only son of the fifth Lord Carrington and succeeded to his title in 1938. His ancestors were textile merchants, bankers, and elected members of Parliament. King George III created their baronage in 1796.
Carrington was educated at Eton and at the age of 19, with his peerage in hand, took officer's training at the Royal Military College in Sandhurst. He was commissioned in the Grenadier Guards and served throughout World War II. He took part in the campaign in France and the Low Countries, reaching the rank of major and being awarded the Military Cross (MC).
At the end of World War II Carrington chose to return to the family's country seat near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, to take a leadership role in reforming British farming practices and to occupy his seat in the House of Lords. His natural instinct for leadership not only led him into positions with the County Council, but also caused him to be made an opposition whip in the House of Lords during the two post-war Labour governments. When the Conservatives returned to power in 1951, Carrington became a parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. He was, at age 32, one of the youngest members of the government. British farm production was increasingly considered a key task for the government, which was faced with severe balance of payments problems. In 1951 he led the British delegation to the sixth conference of the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. He also served as chairman of the Hill Farming Advisory Committee for England, Wales, and Northern Ireland and was a member of the working party on agricultural education set up by the ministry in 1952. He also served a relatively brief stint as parliamentary secretary to the minister of defense after October 1954; he was notable in that position for downgrading traditional shipbuilding in favor of modern electronic naval weaponry. But he made little apparent progress in that regard.
His first major diplomatic experience came in 1956 when he was appointed United Kingdom high commissioner in Australia. That country was not entirely strange to him: he had family interests there, and his father had been born in Australia. He was popular with the informal Australians and relinquished the post in 1959 only because he was made a privy councillor and first lord of the admiralty. As head of Britain's navy Carrington had the full support of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to modernize and shake up the centuries-old traditions that governed most planning and procedures of Britain's navy. Carrington argued for a significant increase in resources, insisting that Britain's defense posture depended above all on its ability to compete with the best of the world's navies. That did not mean matching them submarine for submarine or ship for ship— but it did mean utilizing the best of new naval technologies to deter any possible aggressors against Britain. Carrington thus had less interest in maintaining aging capital ships and invested more resources in mobile, broadly applicable technologies. In addition to his naval duties, Carrington accepted the position of assistant deputy leader of the House of Lords in 1962.
In 1963 Carrington gave up his admiralty position to become leader of the House of Lords and minister without portfolio in the Cabinet (but with principal responsibilities in the area of foreign affairs). At the age of 44 he was recognized as having a bright political future, perhaps even as a future prime minister. His role as a statesman also grew: representing Britain at discussions of the Western European Union (and arguing for greater political integration across the continent) and leading foreign policy debates in the House of Lords (and arguing against arms sales to South Africa).
From 1964 until 1970 Carrington was a member of the Shadow Cabinet and leader of the opposition in the House of Lords. His reputation during this time was neither conservative nor liberal; indeed, his pragmatism sometimes disappointed doctrinaire members of the Conservative Party looking over his record for possible future leadership positions.
Nevertheless, when the Conservatives were put back into power in 1970, Carrington was made secretary of state for defence. He attempted to introduce economies into Britain's defense budgets and still maintain a global presence to meet the Soviet challenge. He worked especially closely with Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Malaysia to guarantee their security and to maintain the British presence in that region militarily. In 1972 he became chairman of the Conservative Party and then changed portfolios in the cabinet, to become secretary of state for energy. He lost both positions with the change of government in 1974 and spent 1974-1979 as leader of the opposition in the House of Lords.
Carrington was appointed secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs following the return of the Conservatives to office in May 1979. He was chairman of the Lancaster House Conference at the end of 1979, which led to the negotiated transfer of white Rhodesia to Black-controlled Zimbabwe. From July to December 1981 he was president of the Council of Ministers of the European Community. He resigned as secretary of state in April 1982 and became chairman of the General Electric Company (of the United Kingdom) in 1983.
The foreign ministers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Council elected Carrington secretary-general on June 25, 1984, succeeding Joseph M. A. H. Luns. He continued in that capacity until June 30, 1988.
Lord Carrington (his friends call him Peter) published Reflect on Things Past: the Memoirs of Peter Lord Carrington in 1988. The book went into a second printing in 1989. In his book Lord Carrington reserves the distinction of having served under every Conservative prime minister for a 31-year period, beginning in 1951. Lord Carrington continues to write and give interviews and provide commentary on public affairs.
Further Reading on Baron Carrington
Interesting profiles of Carrington's career and views can be found in The New Yorker (February 14, 1983) and in The Economist (November 21, 1981).
Carrington, Peter Alexander Rupert, Reflect on Things Past: The Memoirs of Peter Lord Carrington, Harper & Row, 1988.