LORD CARRINGTON; CONSERVATIVE POLITICIAN; 1919 - 2018: FALKLANDS INVOLVEMENT

General

Peter Carrington, the 6th Baron Carrington and Life Peer, died on 9 July 2018, aged 99 years, the longest serving member of the House of Lords (and from 2016 its oldest). He was also the longest serving member of the Privy Council after the Duke of Edinburgh, having been appointed in 1959.

A Tory grandee from a patrician family, educated at Eton and Sandhurst and earning a Military Cross as a cavalry officer in the 2nd World War, he held high political office in six successive Conservative Governments (from Churchill to Thatcher) before he resigned as Foreign Secretary because of the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982. Afterwards, he continued to have an influence on international events as Secretary General of NATO (1984-88) and as EU Peace envoy to former Yugoslavia (1990-91) as well as chairing talks to resolve problems that threatened the first multiracial elections in South Africa (1993). He also had a successful career in the commercial world, as chairman of GEC (1983-84) and Christie’s (1988-93) as well as other board appointments. Between 1992 and 2007, he served as Chancellor of the University of Reading.

 Earlier, as Foreign Secretary, he had chaired the Lancaster House talks that led to the creation of Zimbabwe – perhaps his finest achievement as a diplomatist. His natural tendency was more towards conciliation than confrontation, which made his relationship with Margaret Thatcher interesting, to say the least, although she held him in the highest regard.  

Resignation over the Argentine Invasion of the Falkland Islands

Lord Carrington was above all a principled man, which made his resignation after the Falklands debacle in 1982 entirely predictable. His decision was undoubtedly coloured by the Crichel Down affair in 1954, when Sir Thomas Dugdale resigned, following a public inquiry which had been heavily criticised his department’s refusal to restore agricultural land which had been requisitioned for military purposes in the 2nd World War to its original ownership. Lord Carrington was a junior Minister in the Ministry of Agriculture at the time. He offered his resignation then but was asked to remain in office. But the affair reinforced the constitutional convention that Ministers should be held personally accountable for the work of their department, whether or not they had been personally involved in the decisions or failure of administration in question.

Lord Carrington was quick to resign, along with the junior FCO Minsters involved (Humphrey Atkins and Richard Luce), for his department’s failure to anticipate the Argentine invasion of 2 April 1982. The UK Government was caught unprepared. Lord Carrington had left for talks in Israel (from which he had to rush back). The intelligence community had no inkling (nor had the US). The JIC assessment on 31 March gave no indication of immediate Argentine action and, despite subsequent indications to the contrary, an immediate JIC assessment on the morning of 1 April 1982 asserted that there was still no intelligence that the Argentine Junta had taken the actual decision to invade. Senior UK military figures were out of the country (Lewin, CDS, in New Zealand; Bramall, CGS in N. Ireland; Fieldhouse, CinC Fleet, in Gibraltar). It was left to the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Leach, to rush to Parliament to give the Prime Minister the assurance that a British Task Force could be mobilised – and it was Mrs Thatcher’s personal courage and determination that led her to decide, against the inclination of her Defence Secretary, John Nott, that it should.

Lord Carrington realised that he would have to go, when he and John Nott received an absolute mauling from the influential 1992 Committee of Conservative backbench MPs. As a peer, he knew that he would not be able to defend his policies in the House of Commons and that personally he could not continue in office at a time of deep national humiliation. The policy of trying to negotiate the impossible could no longer be justified in the face of Argentine aggression.

Involvement on Falkland Islands Issues

Lord Carrington was, of course, a man of his time. He approached the Falkland Islands issue against the background of what had gone on before. 

At a time of active de-colonisation, the Labour Government in 1966-68 had nearly reached an understanding with the Government of Argentina on a transfer of sovereignty until Lord Chalfont received a flea in his ear from the Islanders, Parliament and the press. Thereafter, throughout the 1970s, the UK sought to improve communications between Argentina and the Falkland Islands, leading eventually to an Argentine stranglehold over air and sea communications and oil supplies. The UK tried to shift the debate towards economic co-operation in the SW Atlantic; the Argentines insisted on talks on sovereignty. At one stage, the Labour Government raised the possibility of condominium; Argentina proposed a transfer of sovereignty but with a lease-back for a period of years. They also wanted the unreserved transfer of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

Relations soured: Argentina established a military base on Southern Thule; the UK reinforced its Royal Marine presence on the Falkland Islands to platoon strength and extended the deployment of HMS Endurance to 1981. At one stage, the Labour Government decided to deploy a nuclear-powered submarine to the Islands but this was never vouchsafed to the Argentines. Eventually talks were resumed in New York in late 1977 under a sovereignty umbrella but the UK’s aim, as before, was to deflect discussion to non-sovereignty issues.

When Lord Carrington became Foreign Secretary in May 1979, there was a review of policy, although the Falklands were by no means his priority. The options put to him and Nicholas Ridley, the FCO Minister with day-to-day responsibility, were a) ‘Fortress Falklands’ with the associated long-term military, financial and developmental costs; b) to surrender the Falklands offering resettlement to any Islanders who wanted to leave; and c) to continue negotiating with the Argentines. Lord Carrington favoured negotiation and despatched Ridley to the Islands in July to assess the Islanders’ mood. Ridley reassured them that the UK would never conclude an agreement against the wishes of the Islanders but stressed that ‘dragging our feet would do no-one any good’. The Islanders favoured a sovereignty freeze and were reluctant to give Argentina any further rights in or over the Falklands. Cabinet decision-making was delayed pending a Rhodesian settlement but the Defence Committee (OD) agreed in January 1980 to a new round of talks in April, which a Falkland Islands representative attended. But Islanders were suspicious of being tied into a series of formal negotiations.

Ridley then proposed secret talks with the Argentines. Lord Carrington cleared his lines with the Defence Committee on lease-back and joint development of resources. In Geneva in August 1980, Ridley handed over a paper to his Argentine opposite number, which proposed immediate transfer of sovereignty but with continued British administration under a lease-back arrangement for 99 years; British and Argentine flags to be flown on public buildings; a British Governor with a locally-elected Council to be responsible for the Islands’ administration; Argentina to be represented by a Commissioner General; and the creation of a Joint Council to arrange co-operation over the economic development of the Islands and their maritime zone. The Argentines responded positively but wanted a shorter lease-back. Lord Carrington followed it up with a meeting with the Argentine Foreign Minister in New York in September 1980, when he stressed that the views of the Islanders would be critical. Ridley visited the Islands again in November 1980 but was savaged in the Commons when he reported back to Parliament on 2 December. Mrs Thatcher was alarmed and stressed that no pressure should be put on the Islanders to accept anything against their wishes: the idea of an ‘education campaign’ was put firmly on hold (which the British Ambassador in Buenos Aires criticised as Micawberism).

FI Councillors, though opposed to lease-back, nevertheless agreed to further dialogue with Argentina – and talks were held in New York in February 1981. Little progress was made and Lord Carrington saw no point in further talks until the Islanders clarified their position. HMA Buenos Aires warned that this risked confrontation if Argentine patience ran out. It was decided that a senior FCO official, John Ure, should visit Argentina and the Falkland Islands but this achieved little. Elections in the Falkland Islands in October 1981 returned Councillors still strongly against lease-back and any diminution of British sovereignty.

A full JIC assessment in July 1981 concluded that Argentina would continue to press its sovereignty claim but would prefer to do so by peaceful means; forcible action would be a last resort. It warned that if Argentina saw no hope of a peaceful transfer of sovereignty, there would be a high risk of resorting to force – and this could involve military action against British shipping or a full-scale invasion of the Islands. Argentine attitudes certainly hardened when General Galtieri took over as President in December 1981.

Further talks were held in New York in February 1982, with Richard Luce in the UK chair. The Argentines pressed a proposal for a permanent negotiating commission, meeting monthly, with working groups on separate issues. Lord Carrington was prepared to go along with this but not on the timetable proposed – his aim was to spin things out – and only if discussions remained confidential until governments had been consulted. But Argentina issued a communique from Buenos Aires revealing the scope of the discussions and warning that if early steps were not taken towards a transfer of sovereignty, Argentina reserved the right to terminate the process and choose freely the procedure "which best accords with her interests”. Mrs Thatcher annotated her copy: "We must make contingency plans.” In March 1982, the crisis on South Georgia erupted and events moved inexorably towards the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands on 2 April.

Assessment

As Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington faced an almost impossible task – trying to manoeuvre between an Argentina pressing its sovereignty claim (which it had nearly achieved in 1966-68) and the Falkland Islanders, who resolutely opposed any diminution of British sovereignty (and who could, through the FI Committee, drum up strong support in Parliament and the media in their favour). He was never wholly wedded to lease-back but saw it as the only practicable option. He was not above having secret talks with the Argentines but recognised that nothing could be finalised without the acceptance of the Islanders. Once lease-back had been effectively killed off, he fell back on stringing out the negotiations in order to prevent the Argentines from taking matters into their own hands – but events overtook him. He was certainly alert to signals that Argentina might misinterpret: he argued strongly against the de-commissioning of HMS Endurance and tried to make a special case for granting British citizenship to the Falkland Islanders in the new Nationality Act 1981 but never found sufficient support (even, initially, from Mrs Thatcher).

It was a time of elevated tensions in the Cold War with the break-up of détente after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The UK also faced severe economic problems and budgetary pressures with questions over the nuclear deterrent. The 1979 Defence Review proposed major cuts in the MOD budget. The prospect of reinforcing the defence of the Falklands and maintaining their commercial links with the outside world, which Argentina could easily suspend, was never considered a realistic option – hence the somewhat derogatory term ‘Fortress Falklands’ which always quickly dismissed as impractical. The position of the Falklands was very different at that time – a tiny population of some 1,800 people, with a declining economy reliant on wool exports and on South America for its imports. Not surprisingly, there was little UK support for the costly developmental recommendations of Lord Shackleton’s report of 1976 (which might have put UK trade with Argentina, worth some £240 million, at risk). UK policy, which Lord Carrington subsequently endorsed, was always to encourage Islanders to accept some form of economic co-operation with Argentina.

The Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands on 2 April 1982 and their liberation by British armed forces on 14 June 1982 marked a real turning point for the Falkland Islands. The implementation of the key recommendations of Lord Shackleton’s follow-up report of September 1982 (e.g. construction of the Mount Pleasant airport, development of the fisheries, changes in land ownership) has resulted in the Falklands of today, with its thriving economy and burgeoning population proud of its British heritage.

Looking back on the outcome, Lord Carrington may well have conceded that the UK’s firm military response to Argentine oppression and military invasion was justified – and that the Islanders’ subsequent success story made it all worthwhile.

Footnote

Carington with one ‘r’ is Lord Carrington’s family name. His hereditary title as 6th Baron Carringon was determined by the College of Arms when it was first created in 1796. When he was additionally created a Life Peer in 1999, following the House of Lords Act 1999, which removed the automatic right of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords, he adopted the title Baron Carington of Upton, Nottinghamshire using the family spelling of his name.