Sir Winston Churchill: Our Saviour, My Boss
As the 50th anniversary of the death of Britain’s wartime leader approaches, Lord Carington - the last surviving member of Winston Churchill's government - tells Victoria Lambert of the man, his moods and a life unparalleled in history.
The call came when Peter Carington was standing in a field in Buckinghamshire shooting partridges. ''It was late October 1951, the day after the general election,’’ he recalls with clarity. ''A man on a bicycle found me, and said he had Number 10 Downing Street on the telephone and Winston Churchill wanted to speak to me so could I come, please. I thought it was a joke.’’
Until then, the fledgling politician had spent little time in the House of Lords. He had inherited his father’s title of Baron Carrington (the family surname is spelt with one “r”, as is the title of his life peerage, Baron Carington of Upton) when only 19, but had not been allowed to sit in the House until the age of 21.
By that time he was serving with the Grenadier Guards, seeing action for the entire six years of the Second World War and being awarded the Military Cross for his role in the capture and holding of a strategically vital bridge at Nijmegen, in the Netherlands.
As a relative newcomer to the red benches, he had not been hovering by his telephone the morning after Churchill led the Conservatives to victory.
''I thought I’d better go and answer that call, though’’ he says, laughing. ''And it was Churchill, offering me the lowliest position in his government: parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture and Food. He said: 'I hear you’ve been shooting partridges. Would you like to join my shoot?’ He was the loveliest man. Can you imagine any prime minister doing that today?’’
Lord Carington, now a convivial 95, is the sole surviving member of Sir Winston Churchill’s last government (1951-1955). He had, he says, barely spoken to Churchill before that day, but for him, like so many Britons, the wartime leader – who died 50 years ago on Saturday – was already a legend.
''During the war, he pervaded everything. One felt one knew him, yet he was a giant among men.’’
However, as the young Peter Carington was beginning his life in politics, it was uncertain whether Churchill’s political career was already over. ''He must have been very wounded when he was voted out in the landslide election in 1945. But I certainly understood why Labour was voted in. The public simply didn’t believe that the Conservatives could be trusted. Anyone who lived through the 1930s, who witnessed the Jarrow marches, understood that. There had been such terrible poverty.
''I remember serving alongside men in my tank during the war, and hearing their thoughts. These were young men who had joined up in the hope of getting a square meal. Most had been unemployed before the war. In my squadron, not one single man voted Conservative in 1945.’’
In 1947, Carington was made a junior opposition whip, and encountered Churchill up close for the first time. ''He used to come once a year to have lunch with the Conservative whips in the House of Lords, and it was all right if he was in a good temper. But if he wasn’t, he didn’t say much. One lunch, I recall, he wasn’t speaking at all. Then, after the meat course but before pudding, the Labour MP Bessie Braddock passed the doorway. His eyes followed her: 'There goes that constipated Britannia,’ he said. And he was so pleased with that, he became perfectly jolly after lunch, and very agreeable.’’
Once Churchill returned as prime minister, Carington still saw his new boss rarely. ''He was fairly Olympian. The first time I had to see him properly was the Crichel Down kerfuffle.’’
This was the 1954 cause célèbre regarding 725 acres, bought under compulsory purchase by the government for RAF bombing practice, which it failed to hand back, as promised, after the war. Instead, the Ministry of Agriculture was awarded the land. The original owners forced a public inquiry, which condemned the government’s behaviour, after which the minister responsible, Sir Thomas Dugdale, resigned.
Carington offered his own job up, too. ''I thought I ought to resign, so I marched in and said so to Churchill. He asked: 'Do you want to resign?’ I said I thought I ought to.
''He replied, 'I think you’d better not.’ And that was that. After all, if the prime minister tells you not to, you don’t.
Lord Carington with Robert Mugabe
"I was always rather in awe of him,’’ he adds, while acknowledging that Churchill’s reputation might have been quite different without the war. ''It would have been unfair, but he could have gone down as a failure. His decision in 1925 to bring Britain back to the Gold Standard, the Dardanelles campaign in the First World War, his misjudged loyalty to the Duke of Windsor [Edward VIII]… Everyone else couldn’t wait for him to go, but he was Churchill’s king.’’
What does he make of the comment made this week by Jeremy Paxman that Churchill was a dictator? ''Well, he was dominant, but not a dictator. He was very much a democrat. When you consider what it must have been liked to be defeated in 1945 – after victory and all that he had been through, to be rejected by the British people. He was bitterly hurt, but he never thought they didn’t have the right to do it.’’
Sir Winston Churchill's funeral service in St Paul's Cathedral, in 1965
The memory of that defeat and the tough years Britons had endured led Carington and others of his generation, including Willie Whitelaw, to embrace a form of conservatism that he calls ''compassionate’’. ''Certainly more so than some that followed,’’ he says waspishly.
For example? ''Well, nobody can say Margaret was compassionate,’’ he laughs. ''She was a remarkable woman but that was not her sort of scene, particularly.’’
Margaret Thatcher with Lord Carington in 1979 (Rex)
Carington famously served as Lady Thatcher’s foreign secretary from 1979 to 1982, resigning after Argentina invaded the Falklands. He was the sixth Secretary General of Nato and also served as a trustee for the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, set up as a national memorial and living legacy to the late leader.
In addition, he is the last surviving member of the cabinets of both Harold Macmillan (''a hero of mine’’) and Sir Alec Douglas-Home (''a much underestimated character’’).
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington in Dublin, 1979 (PA)
He is amusing on the subject of the plethora of foreign leaders he has met over the years. Ronald Reagan was ''the most delightful man — funny, not clever but full of common sense’’. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was ''clever, but rather grand. He tried to patronise Margaret, which didn’t go down well.’’ Mitterand? ''Not a very upright man’’; Jimmy Carter “left an awful mess behind’’. As for Barack Obama, ''I think he’s doing rather badly. I said to Henry Kissinger – an old mate of mine – what he thought of him, and he replied: 'He makes the most wonderful speeches, very thoughtful. The trouble is: he thinks having made the speech, he has solved the problem.’ And I agree.’’
And today’s crop of leaders? ''Mr Farage is not very lovely, is he?’’ muses the peer. ''But I think David Cameron has done rather well. I can’t understand why people are so critical. The economy is recovering, and he has held the Coalition together. That’s a difficult thing to do. He’s a good guy, not a Right-wing baboon.’’
Will there be any future Caringtons in politics? He has the makings of a political dynasty among his three children, six grandchildren and five great grandchildren. ''Not as far as I know,’’ he says, smiling.
The family is close, however, and ''they look after the old gentleman – ring him up’’. Since the death of Iona, his beloved wife of 68 years, in 2009, he spends most of his time in Buckinghamshire, tending the garden the couple built from scratch – ''there’ll be thunder from heaven if I don’t’,’ he chuckles – not far from that field where he got that call from Churchill.
''People who weren’t alive then, they didn’t quite realise how important he was. From the moment in 1940 when he became prime minister, after the disaster of Dunkirk when we were so isolated, it never occurred to me, to any of us, that we were in danger of losing the war.
“And the reason was Churchill. What he said, stood for, looked like, how he behaved, those marvellous speeches. People now don’t realise what an extraordinary effect he had on Britain and the British.’’
By Victoria Lambert
7:05AM GMT 22 Jan 2015
For more information about Churchill 2015, go to www.churchillcentral.com. For the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, or to make a bequest, go to www.wcmt.org.uk